Honi soit qui mal y pense: Cynicism and Ireland’s agora


I left a shorter version of this comment, for old times’ sake, on Kathy Sheridan’s article in today’s Irish Times. The article is titled ‘We should stop cribbing about the ‘small stuff’ – and think big.’

Kathy Sheridan speaks of cynicism as if though were a purely negative affair. But why should this be so? Cynicism as a school of philosophy was not simply a matter of declaring that everything sucked. It was concerned with challenging convention and living according to one’s nature, usually from the sidelines. Diogenes of Sinope, AKA Diogenes the Cynic, is reputed to have masturbated in the agora, the central space of the political life of Greek city-states.

When he was reprimanded by affronted citizens for so doing, he said he wished he could extinguish hunger as easily by rubbing his belly. His point, of course, given the ever present hunger in the city’s midst, was that people are happy to leap upon matters of politeness and decorum whilst basic human needs go unaddressed.

Thankfully things have changed, and we do not have too many people masturbating in public. Indeed, in some places, you can even be fined for searching for food in rubbish bins. Now, if only we could abolish negativity, things might start looking up…

Whereas the cynics of old sought to unmask generalised hypocrisy, stupidity and brutality, the prevailing understanding of cynicism these days, particularly when it comes to the public, is barely distinguishable from knee-jerk negativity. In her article, Kathy Sheridan has her sights in particular on the Right2Water campaign.

Apparently, laying claim to a ‘right to change’ Ireland on the basis of ‘equality, justice and democracy’, which is what the campaign now promises, amounts to ‘relentlessly negative rhetoric’, and ‘peddling unrealistic promises’. If laying claim to equality, justice and democracy amount to peddling unrealistic promises, then the ‘heavy responsibility’ Kathy Sheridan speaks about really ought to lie with those who claim such things are not possible.

There is, of course, another meaning of ‘cynical’ in common parlance, which has more to do with the kind of thing the cynics sought to unmask. This is when someone is calculatingly manipulative and dishonest in the service of narrow interests. One might, for instance, describe a studs-up tackle in football as a ‘cynical foul’. That is, the player is motivated by inflicting damage on the opposing player or team, rather than playing the match in keeping with the spirit of the game. One might apply this analogy to the arena of political discussion. Rather than attend to the substance of what people are actually saying, one can -if the intent is merely to smash a political opponent- wilfully misrepresent what is being said. Hence, tens of thousands of people taking to the streets seeking to demonstrate against injustice -with a great many individual variations in their reasons and motives for doing so- can be reduced to mere negativity, or presented as the harebrained babblings of a thoughtless mob, rather than a sign people are prepared to fight for a better and more just and democratic society, and are willing to do so together by demonstrating in public spaces. For democrats, this kind of thing ought to be excellent news. For those whose only response to a vigorous challenge to the ruling order is simply honi soit qui mal y pense, not so much, I guess.

Perhaps Diogenes fits the profile of the ‘moaner and cribber’ Sheridan attacks in her article for not trusting enough in Ireland’s great and good, or in the ‘myriad of choices’ she claims representative democracy provides. If so, she may be pleased to learn that he is also reputed to have committed suicide by holding his breath.


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To The Other Side

This is a guest post by Estelle Birdy.



There may be some people out there who don’t actually know that I’m from Co. Louth. Just so you know, I am. Last Sunday I travelled with my four kids and the dog, to Blackrock, Co Louth. These days, when you’re travelling on the M1 from Dublin, a good bit North of Drogheda, (a dreadful place in South Louth), you come over a rise and you get the most amazing view of beautiful countryside, the sea and the Cooley Mountains. Every time I drive over that rise, I have a bodily reaction. I really feel something. I’ve examined this feeling and it’s something more than the normal reaction you might have to beautiful scenery. It’s a big, big feeling.

We all arrived at the house.  It’s a 1970’s Bungalow Bliss style house, like most of the houses on the Old Golf Links Road.  Bought in 1975, with a Louth County Council mortgage by my parents, returning home after many years in London.  My mother’s from Tipperary, a council house in the arse end of nowhere.  Her Dad was killed in his early 40’s in a mining accident.  He was a Trade Unionist and a believer in education being the key to getting people out of poverty.  Unusually for poor people of the time, all seven of the children went to secondary school.  Of the seven siblings, five had to emigrate.  Of those five, only my mother came back to settle.  Two others came back but much later in life.

My Dad grew up in Carrickmacross.  His Dad was a cattle dealer and made enough money to have a nice house and by the 50’s, a car.  My Dad’s family even went on holidays.  To Blackrock, Co Louth, funnily enough.  Of the nine children in his family, three had to emigrate and a fourth chose to.  All three who had to emigrate, eventually migrated back.

On Sunday then, I went for a walk.  I rambled down the Rock, (as it is known in those parts).  It’s really a very pleasant place.  The houses are nice.  It’s got a relatively new council estate built at end of our road.  Those houses are really nice too.  The council estate was built because, at the height of the boom, the adult children of people who had grown up in Blackrock, didn’t have a hope in hell of affording a house in Blackrock. Some good citizens got a petition going, to stop the building of the estate as it would devalue “our houses” and attract “the wrong elements” into the area.

They arrived to our house with their petition and their beseeching, we-understand-each-other faces, one evening.  To my mother’s doorstep.  She told them to “Get the fuck away from my door” and chased them out the gate.  I thought of this as I passed the estate where one of my oldest friends now lives with her kids.

I walked down the leafy loveliness of the Rock Road.  I was away in dreamland when I heard a voice calling, “Well if it isn’t Estelle Birdy”.  It was Paula, the older sister of another of my friends, and her husband.  We stopped and had a chat about our kids and how our aging parents are doing and just stuff.

I walked on down towards the beach road.  I stopped at the top of the slope just looked at the beautiful view across the bay.  The tide was out but there was shimmering silvery water out at the river. I walked past the house where the judge used to live.  I don’t know if the family still lives there.  He was no ordinary judge.  He was a judge in the North.  At a time when judges from the North and their families got blown up and shot.  This judge was a Catholic and he took refuge South of the border in Blackrock.  His daughter, at college in the North, had to use a false name.  We thought that was hilarious when we were at school.  We used to joke that she called herself, “Eileen Shoot All The Brit Bastards”,  just to be safe. You find that kind of thing funny when you’re fifteen.  Actually, I still find it funny.

The family had 24 hour Garda protection.  They had a sentry box outside the front of the house.  The house backs onto the beach and has a little track down to the strand. They had a big bay window at the back, to make the best of the views.  As I was passing, I thought of the day when, myself and my cousins were tracking around torturing each other with dares. We used to dare each other to get into people’s gardens and take a flower or run around right up at their windows or something that could get you in trouble if you were caught.

This day, one of my cousins, (who shall remain nameless), was dared to go in and steal a daffodil from this particular house. We didn’t even know it was the judge’s house at the time. Up we rocked, all 6 of us, into the garden. The man himself was reading the Sunday newspapers sitting in the window.  The nameless cousin, ran in and took about 50 daffodils. We all marched around the garden. Then we all left. My mother went feckin’ mad when we got back with all those flowers. I often wondered, in the intervening years, what the Garda protection was for and why they only thought the front of the house needed protection.

Then I walked back down the road towards the village. And who should I meet only a man who is black. There are lots of people of different colours living in Blackrock now. When I was growing up, it would have been a real talking point if a black man turned up. You had to go to Dublin to see a black man and only then if Phil Lynott was in town. I had been in London until I was nearly five, so I expected people to be all different colours. I remember going to Dublin and feeling weird that in this city everyone looked the same. I said to the man, “At least it’s not raining”, looking up at the grey sky. He beamed at me and said, “Yes, everything’s A O.K.” and did that O.K. hand gesture.

I don’t know why but meeting him made me even happier.

The church in Blackrock is up at the top of a big hill and the front door faces towards the bay and the mountains. I turned up and started climbing the hill. I found a 1 cent coin on the way. Lucky.  In the porch of the church. There were two men, a really old one and one about my age. We said hello to each other.

I said to them, “Is there a mass on inside or something?” The older man said, “You’re obviously a local.  We’re not from here you know. We’re from Armagh.”

I said, “Oh my God! Armagh? Foreigners like?”

The younger one laughed but the older man said, “We’re strangers here. We’ve never been here before. We’re coming for a wedding next Friday. We came today to check out where the church is.”

Five days in advance of the wedding, they were checking where the church was. Just in case they’d be late or get lost.

Then he looked out through the door of the church and asked me what that was out there, “Is it a lake?” I said, “No that’s the sea”. I explained to him that the tide was out now but on its way back in. I pointed out the river and told them how it fills up as the tide comes in but is a shallow trickle when it’s out. How it’s an illusion though, as the tide comes back in. The sea looks to be miles away and you could have crossed the river in its shallow state and be playing miles away from shore.  But the river is filling up, from the other sides of the estuary. You try to cross back but the river is deep now, with whirlpools and undertows you never expected. I told them how 3 kids had drowned like this, while their parents were on the beach on a hot weekend. They crossed the river where it’s really close to the shore. When they tried to get back, just a couple of hundred metres, they drowned in the river. The first two were brothers and it happened when I was in sixth class. They found their bodies on the Monday. I remember the weird quiet in the school, a few steps up from the beach, when the word went round that they were being taken up from the shore. No one knew them personally. They weren’t local. I think they came from Knockbridge or somewhere. As I was telling the story, the feelings of that day came back so strongly. It was so shocking. They were kids, just like us and they had drowned on our beach. The other boy, who coincidentally, had the same surname as those boys but was no relation, drowned some years later. It was some years after again, before a sign was put up along the promenade, warning of the dangers of crossing the river. I told the men this. The younger man said, “Isn’t that always the way?”

We stood looking at the sea together for a while. The old man said, “I’ve never seen anything like that before. It must be good to be a local here. You’re lucky to be a local.”

I hadn’t considered this. I said, “I’m not really a local. Well, I suppose. I grew up here. I haven’t lived here for a long time”.  I didn’t really know what to say. Then I said, “Yeah, you’re right. I am a local.”

We parted company. I wished them a good time at the wedding and they headed off. I went into the church. The lights were dimmed. There were a few candles burning on those offertory candle thingys on the altar. I was completely alone in the church. I sat down in a pew near the top on the right hand side. I felt weird. Like there was something gathering around me. It smelt exactly the same as it always smelt. Sensations and memories and random thoughts started flooding me.

I was sitting in the exact spot where I had sat for my First Communion. Beside Sandra, who had the exact same shoes as I had. I stopped going to mass quite young, at 11 or so, because I didn’t want to and my parents didn’t make me. But I had spent a lot of time in this Church after that. There were easy pickings for myself and my cousins. People dropped a lot of change on the floor. Change that bought lots of sweets. We used to race each other, on our bellies, up and down the church pulling ourselves across the cushiony kneeling things. Memories of funerals and weddings and tone deaf singing ringing in my ears.  Being dragged out of the confession box by the sacristan when we got trapped inside because some ceremony started and we couldn’t escape.


My Dad arguing with Cardinal O’Fiaich at the altar during my confirmation because he had called me the wrong name. Exasperated, Tommy O’Fiaich, turned to me and said, “Look, will you just tell me your confirmation name and never mind him”.

Thoughts of the boys in the river and the desperate search for them on that hot Sunday. The fishermen rushing to their boats.  Locals scouring the whole length of the shoreline, desperately hoping they’d walked to a safety.  Why had they come into my head and why I had I told the Armagh people about them? Thoughts of Sandra, of the same Communion shoes fame, who still lives, now with her own family, next to the school. How she told me about how important it was for her that there were other non-white kids in her childrens’ school because her children are mixed race.

The memories and the thoughts were like ghosts whispering around me. I started to cry. I couldn’t stop crying alone in the semi-darkness.  It wasn’t maudlin in a, “my childhood was idyllic and constantly happy” kind of way. It was everything. As if every emotion and thought was crying to get out. And it was the feeling of belonging. In this place. At this time. Even, in this church.  The old Armagh man could read it straight away. Maybe in my face or the way I walked up the hill?  I belong to this place and it belongs to me. But I wasn’t even born here.  I don’t live there anymore but I own this part of the world and it owns me and no one can ever take that away from me.

Then, thoughts of those who have a place where they belong. A place that feels like this, for them. People who have to leave that home. Not because they want to travel the world but because they’re going to starve or be tortured and killed. Because their home has become a place of fear and death. Thoughts of the man from Afghanistan who set off with a large group to walk to the U.K. They lost a lot of the group along the way. Mostly the women and children. He’s stuck in a make shift hut in Calais. Calais used to be owned by England. Afghanistan used to be part of the British Empire. If he’d been born in a different time, he would have been a British citizen all along. Albeit a lesser one.

Thoughts of the story my friend Orla, (also from Blackrock),  had told me the day before about how she couldn’t stop sobbing at the stories she had read about the people being picked up in the Mediterranean by the Irish navy. People end up in the water and they hold onto their children for hours at a time. Gripping them tightly in desperation. Keeping their heads above water. After holding maybe multiple children in their arms, they, (if they’re lucky), get pulled out by these Irish people. And they find their children dead in their arms.  They’ve probably been dead for ages. They just needed to hold on. To hold their heads out of the water. But it wasn’t enough. Like Rowan Gillespie’s famine sculpture along the quays in Dublin, with the man with his dead child draped over his shoulders. It’s based on a real story of a man who walked for many miles carrying his child, not realising that his child was long dead on his back.


Thoughts of photos from the 60’s, of the most beautiful gardens in Afghanistan. Afghan people fought long and hard to stay in their homeland. It is a beautiful place. They don’t want to leave it until they have to leave it. Sudanese or Syrian people don’t think the U.K. is a really great place to go and live. It’s grey and cold, and so too, sometimes, are the people. They’d mostly like to stay in the places they know and love.

But if I want to go anywhere in the world, I expect to be able to go there. I have no idea why anyone should stop me. If I wanted to go to visit Afghanistan or Sudan or Syria, I’d take it as a personal affront, to be told I couldn’t. I go to the U.K. whenever I like. I could have a British passport if I wanted, simply because I was born there. I have an Irish passport simply because my parents were born here. I thought of the arbitrary nature of all of this and the pretence that there is some inalienable right to be somewhere on this planet and to keep others out. There isn’t. It’s not a natural law or anything. It’s just made up. These are the rules of the game. And it is just a game; with an ever changing set of rules, made up, not by nature, but by people. The current rules of the game dictate that my ‘belonging place’ is Blackrock, Co. Louth but that I can change that place to just about anywhere in the world and I am unlikely to be even called a migrant. Those are the rules. At the moment.

Were my parents migrants when they left to move to England? Or when they came back? I think of my Dad starting to tear up at my kitchen table last year, talking about those famous signs, “No Blacks. No Irish. No Dogs”. I have my answer. They were migrants when they went to England. They were just going home when they moved to Ireland. What of the 1970’s me though? Was I a migrant when I first came to Ireland? Probably not because my parents were born in Ireland. Yet, I could still have that British passport if I wanted. That would make me British wouldn’t it? I had a completely London accent, at the time. Does that make a difference? Keeping up? You’d better. The rules can change very quickly. For instance, one of the current rules is, “Call anyone travelling, on an overcrowded boat from Africa or Asia to Europe, ‘a migrant’. Not a ‘person’. Not even a ‘migrant person’. Just a ‘migrant’. There are verbs to use when referring to these ‘migrants’. ‘Swarming’ and ‘scurrying’ are acceptable.

Words are containers of meaning. The people who make up the rules, know this. Keeping up with the rules is difficult. Make sure you’re ahead of the game. Otherwise you could end up lost on the other side of the river. With the waters rising over your head.

I took my 1 cent and paid for a candle and lit it. I hope the church doesn’t mind. That was all I had on me. I thought of all of the people in the sea. That’s all it was though. A thought. It doesn’t take anyone out of the water.  I wished or prayed, or whatever you want to call it, for everything to be better.



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Manuel Castells on social movements, political parties, SYRIZA, Podemos, outrage and hope

This is a translated excerpt of an intervention by Manuel Castells, on the event of a revised edition of his Networks of Outrage of Hope. Also participating was Pablo Iglesias, Secretary General of Podemos, and Manuel Campo Vidal, journalist and TV presenter. Castells’s remarks are in response to contributions by the others (I may add Pablo Iglesias’s intervention, which was interesting in its own right, if I get the time).

(Translated excerpt from 28m to 45m.)

Manuel Castells

Manuel Castells

We are faced with a new historical form of social movements. Because when the same concrete forms, in terms of networks, in terms of collective leadership, in terms of proposals for rupture from a system, but not in a political sense but rather in a cultural and mental sense, when this gets repeated, time and again, in absolutely different contexts, whether in a crisis or not, in dictatorship or democracy, in Latin America or China, in Europe or anywhere else… not all countries have these movements. But in those that do have them, they are like this.

So this needs to make us reflect upon the new forms, let us call them networked movements (movimientos en red), which are those that correspond, from the point of view of the communicative, cultural and organisational structure, to the domination, the pre-eminence, of networks in our society.

This does not mean that these movements are made by the internet. This is something stupid that no-one has ever written. But without the internet they would be other movements, not these ones. And the thing is, if we do not have these ones, we have no others. That is what is happening in the world.

The other matter that I would like to address, in general terms, before going on to the more interesting part, which is our exchange here, rather than juxtaposed speeches, is that in the widest perspective of what I have tried to develop over many years, there are two basic elements.

One: social movements, throughout history, and not only nowadays, but always, are the agents of transformation, of cutures, of societies, and of institutions. If there are no social movements, there can be no transformation. There can be no transformation. As such, the institutions have to be changed from outside the institutions. That is the fundamental question that I have been setting forth in line with a long tradition of thought that highlights that implementation within institutions is absolutely necessary to change people’s lives. But without the fuel of social movements, this does not happen. And here I am in agreement with what was previously said, that the experience of history shows that when movements become locked in, when what remains of movements, the actors that emerge from movements, become locked within the institutions, the transformation comes to an end. Not only does the movement come to an end. The transformation comes to an end.

Movements always come to an end. Movements always die. Whether through repression, or they are co-opted, or through integration. But the important thing is: how do they die? And what do they die for? And how can they be reproduced again? If their death is fertile, and if new forms of living are born through new institutional forms, new cultural forms, then they have played their role of transformation. And if not, it is simply a great heroic collective attempt to change lives that is defeated, and history is full of defeats and victories. But whenever there are transformative victories, they are always through social movements. There is not a single case where transformation has come out of institutions. This is a very serious thing. Because it means that if things really must be changed, this cannot be expected of political parties. As simple as that. Traditional political parties rooted in the institutions of the State. When these political parties are no longer inspired by ideological projects that are utopian, social, based on popular demands, they go on to become machines of that State, and that State reproduces; it does not produce.

Now, at the same time, the relation outlined here, and I’m moving on now to concrete matters, between party and movement, is complex, and fundamental. Why? Because transformation -and here we agree- is not produced merely through narrowly political action. The transformation is cultural, it is mental. It is people’s minds. Deep down, the way in which we think, the way in which we act. And that way of thinking is not eternal. It is constantly modelled and modulated. And it is for this reason that communication is the space of power. For that very reason. Because the ability of any given project -be it of transformation or repression or domination- depends on conquering people’s minds, be it through adherence, or through resignation, which is what is generally happening. Be it out of enthusiasm that things can be changed, or for fear of changing. At this point of time, for example, in Europe, the big battle is the conservative offensive aimed at inciting fear. And what is more they are trying to do this through one paradigmatic example: Syriza. We have to make people afraid with Syriza. If you support Syriza, the same thing will happen to you. You will have no money. You will have nothing to eat. You won’t be able to open your banks. Fear.

Image from Pablo Iglesias's Twitter avatar, 17th July

Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias

Against fear, which is the most basic of human emotions, there are only two reactions. This has been studied empirically. There are only two antidotes. One: outrage (indignación). I am so outraged that I cannot bear more of this humiliation, this injustice, I cannot bear any longer to have no dignity, that I explode regardless of the consequences. That is what happened with the referendum in Greece. But the other matter is hope. That’s why I called my book Networks of Outrage and Hope. Because after outrage, there must be a positive emotion that says, beyond this, we have to hope for something. What? And here we have the difference between party and movement. Movements are simply emotional. All movements are emotional. They have no programme. Throughout history, they have no programme. Or they have a programme that includes everything. Everything at once. Occupy Wall Street had 375 concrete demands, very concrete ones, like the end of US military bases across the whole planet. Well, programmes of that kind, ok, but these are utopias, desires, positive emotions for change.

This then has to be processed by the institutions, and therefore by political actors. But which political actors? That is the question. Political actors that are constitutively capable of processing that kind of emotion, this kind of hope. To spell it out: it is not the same thing to propose, to traditional political parties that form part of professional politics, a series of demands that these parties then put in an electoral manifesto in order go on just the same as before or make small reforms, as it is to be a political instrument for social and cultural transformation. That is, ultimately, a transformation in how we live, and what we live for. That is something completely different. That is why I do not just talk about parties and movements but of transformative parties or parties that reproduce the social order on the whole.

Going back to a few of the things you have said. The 15M was an explosion of outrage towards what was happening. It had no programme. It had no real leadership. There were calls made, but this is not leadership. It was spontaneous. And it was built simultaneously on social networks and in the street. I agree with Pablo [Iglesias] that the street, provides, above all, the visibility that those who are not on social networks cannot have. It also appeared on TV, but badly, and this is something that Manuel and I have been arguing over for a long time: I think that traditional media outlets are essential, provided they cease to be traditional. Because these media outlets are the property of governments or the property of companies that have not the slightest interest in social change. And the only thing that redeems them are the journalists. I am not being a demagogue here: because there are professional journalists who risk their position, who do not allow themselves to be manipulated, but who do not always win, and many times they lose. They lose, that is to say, they are sacked, or they have to shut up, and we have many instances of this.

So, it is not true that traditional media outlets are the engine of change. But what is true is that if there is no presence, in some way, in traditional media outlets, then the message is limited in terms of the spheres it can reach. Let us take a very clear example here: how does one then get this message across? One, through professional journalists who resist. Two, by creating events on such a scale that they cannot be treated with disdain. And that was in large part what the social movements did. Social movements create a situation that one can try to manipulate, but only to a certain extent. Or, the penetration of this space controlled and manipulated by government or capitalist firms…this space..in the specific case of Spain – this is an example, it is not always like this- there is a movement. This movement is built on social networks. The networks go on existing. The networks never stop. This is why these movements are different from others. They go on working, constantly.


To give an example from the United States, when everyone said Occupy Wall Street has died: well, as a movement yes, because there never was an articulated movement. And after six months occupying more than a thousand American cities, there were no further occupations of that kind. But the people (emphasis) who were there remain, and the networks remain. And so what happens? Suddenly there is another flaring up of outrage, the serial killings of black people in the United States, and Ferguson bursts forth, as do demonstrations throughout the country, white and black people, and the whole present movement, Black Lives Matter, that emerges from these same networks that were there. Any thing that occurs in society, now, there will no longer be any silence about it. Every time there is an injustice, it now emerges in every society.

Now, it emerges where it emerges. That is, this does not guarantee positive or negative effects in normative terms. And here is where organised, conscious, reflective political action has an essential role. As such, the movement is the source of social change. The new type of party that can emerge from those movements is the form of articulation without which it is difficult to go on to change institutions.

So. If the parties that emerge from these movements, of Podemos’s type, after a while become parties that are the same as the others, that is, a new left, this becomes part of the same caste. It becomes professional politics. It becomes -to be frank- like Izquierda Unida (United Left). The only purpose they serve is to accompany the system.

So, the big question is how, whilst being a political actor inside the institutions, with constitutional obligations etc etc, this fire of transformation, and this material connection with what is happening in society, can be maintained.

Ada Colau

Ada Colau

Only one example comes to mind, but one that I am witnessing: in Barcelona, Ada Colau and the whole team of Barcelona en Comú are trying to run the city, they are carrying out projects, but the neighbourhoods are more active than ever. The social networks are more active than ever. And you know what? These municipal coalitions, or in the future, a Podemos with national responsibilities, have a small problem. They can only be good. If they get perverted, they cease to exist, because they live on the basis of the trust they have generated. If this trust is betrayed, and they become another PSOE with a purple tint, this will disappear or be absorbed by the PSOE, or it becomes the PSOE, which is something else. It will go on to carry out the same role of reproducing the system with other hues. That is the big difference between the attempts to regenerate the left and the attempts to change society. The majority of people voting for these coalitions, and for Podemos, think they are changing society. There is data to support this – Jaime Miquel, the best electoral analyst in Spain, who I am grateful to have here today, has been convincing me of this.

Now, even in these conditions..even..for me things are very simple: a transformative party is not the same as a traditional political party. And this party of transformation is defined by its connection to what continues to exist in terms of desire for change on social networks, in society, in neighbourhood organisations, in labour organisations etc.

The final fundamental question for the final two, three minutes I have. The space of political action that is national, and global powers that are global. This exists, this is what the movement for a just globalisation sought to tackle, and in that sense it was a great social movement that laid out how social transformation could be achieved in this world. And in fact, the only things we are seeing is that from local governments, such as the current municipal coalitions we now have in Spain…there has been a real municipal revolution, and the world has discovered this but here it appears not. But there has been a municipal revolution. This municipal revolution is scalable on networks of municipal change that exist throughout the world. As such the old idea of scaling to the global level through linking up the local is one of the ways. The other is that the capacity of national states where there is a transformative process, to articulate systems of reciprocal defence against global powers is the potential horizon. This is what has happened in Latin America. In Latin America, states that have been transformed by new kinds of social movements, whatever you think of this state or that, but there has been a movement of support with regard to international relations. Relying upon other economic powers, for example China. Well, it is not that I believe Podemos’s salvation lies in an alliance with China, but I wish to point out that the world is a bit wider. And, ultimately, we really have to believe the idea of the internet as a global network of wills, projects, and debate. Because if deep down the ultimate transformation is a cultural and mental transformation, of people throughout the world, then beyond political institutions, beyond alliances between states or city councils or parties, there is the constant and permanent connection of minds throughout the world, who coincide on the point that we can no longer put up with this, and that the question is how to overcome fear.


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Stephen Collins: A Frightful Hobgoblin

The first English edition of the Communist Manifesto did not begin with ‘A spectre is haunting Europe..’. Rather, as Francis Wheen tells us in his biography of Karl Marx, it began with ‘A frightful hobgoblin stalks through Europe’. The frightful hobgoblin nowadays, according to Stephen Collins’s article in today’s Irish Times, titled ‘A spectre is haunting Europe . . .’ is not communism, however, but mere ‘political chaos’, and it manifests itself in the fact that more than half of the electorate no longer wishes to vote for the traditional parties of rule: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour. ‘Anger and discontent’, he says, ‘may prove more potent forces’ than ‘arguments about the need for political stability’.

In the shadow of the hobgoblin, Collins appears to see no relation between what he calls ‘political stability’, on the one hand, and anger and discontent on the other. Indeed, the maximum expression of the desire for political stability -the draconian conditions imposed by Troika bailouts- appear to him as the acme of good sense.

Collins inveighs against Syriza for its ‘gross mishandling’ of Greece’s affairs. Yet the destructive impact of years of austerity, in the form of skyrocketing unemployment, poverty, and the rise of the Nazi Golden Dawn party, seem to be just one more chapter in the story of ‘traditional European values and the liberal, market-based principles that have served the EU in good stead’.

Now, if by ‘traditional European values’ we mean xenophobia and fascism, and if by ‘liberal, market-based principles’ we mean unbridled capitalist savagery and Carthaginian treaties, Collins does have a point.

The Irish Times political correspondent discerns, following former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a ‘tactical alliance’ between radicals from right and left. He thinks the fact that both Sinn Féin and Shane Ross welcomed Syriza’s election constitutes a tactical alliance. By such criteria, if you, for your own reasons, are buoyed by the fact that the sun will come out tomorrow, and so too is a convicted paedophile, then you are in a tactical alliance with a convicted paedophile.

Collins points to ‘anti-German emotion’ and the ‘disastrous impact of Marxist ideology’ on people’s lives in Poland. One might easily forget, presented with this take on things, that it was the Soviet Union that defeated the genocidal Nazi forces responsible for the ethnic cleansing, extermination through labour, and death camps that resulted in the deaths of nearly six million people in Poland under German occupation.

Perhaps, by Collins’s lights, the ‘Marxist ideology’ that culminated in universal free health care and free education following the Second World War must have come as an even more dreadful imposition.

Indeed, if we apply Stephen Collins’s criteria for what constitutes a tactical alliance: who else held that it was not Nazism, but rather the forces of communism, that constituted the greatest threat to the future of Europe? Well, Hitler, for one.


But also the Irish Times, circa 1933, when they saw Hitler as ‘Europe’s standard-bearer against Muscovite terrorism’. Some alliances endure longer than others, it seems. A seasoned observer might declare this a foolish consistency, stalking little-minded hobgoblins.


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Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable

These last few days, as I found my attention drawn to the Labour leadership contest in the UK, I kept coming across the claim that a Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn would be unelectable, or, for short, that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. What does this claim say?

For starters, it isn’t really a claim about Jeremy Corbyn at all. It is a claim about Britain’s electorate. It says that given the choice, British voters will not vote in sufficient numbers to put a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn into government. The Labour Party won 9.3 million votes at the last election, whereas the Conservative Party won 11.3 million, with an overall turnout of 66%. Labour won 232 seats, the Conservatives 330. To say that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable is to offer a hypothesis that there is no way, given the policies the party would advocate, that these figures can be reversed.

It’s hardly a stupid hypothesis. It’s very difficult for a political party to engineer a sea change in public opinion. Especially when many people in that political party have no inclination even to try. The task becomes all the more difficult when the country’s media are overwhelmingly in favour, not of the status quo, but of the policy agenda of privatisation and stripping away of social rights, pursued by the Conservative Party but also pursued -in an ever-so-slightly watered-down form, by the Labour Party as it is.

I wouldn’t say the comparisons to the Michael Foot years are altogether inappropriate either: Corbyn as leader would be the object of merciless attacks from the press, just as Foot was in his day. Then we have the conditions of the ballot box itself. Jean-Paul Sartre, I think, is right: “No one can see you, you have only yourself to look to; you are going to be completely isolated when you make your decision, and afterwards you can hide that decision or lie about it.” Whilst the kind of message Corbyn might transmit as Labour Party leader would have undoubted ethical appeal, and may even chafe against the conscience of large numbers of Conservative voters, the act of casting a vote is conducted free from such disturbances.

There are a few problems that this hypothesis does not take into account. One is the fact that the implementation of austerity reshapes the way people see the world. I am not saying that austerity produces more progressively-minded people: it is not necessarily so. But it is simply wrong –when not a dishonest self-fulfilling prophecy- to suggest that the outlook of the British public has held static since the days of Michael Foot, or that it is unlikely to change in future.

Another is the fact that what people think, and what they end up voting for, are two different things. An Independent article the other day, for example, showed that in fact, people at large tend to agree with Jeremy Corbyn’s position on a host of issues: railway nationalisation, higher taxes on higher incomes, a ban on nuclear weapons, rent controls, a mandatory living wage, cutting tuition fees, opposition to wars in the Middle East.

If we say that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, then, perhaps we are really saying that the British political institutions cannot deliver what its public actually wants (assuming, of course, we actually care about that). Or we might put it slightly differently: the British public appears unable to get what it wants from its political institutions.

Now, this is a rather naive way of looking at things. “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable” really means different things depending on who is saying it. Some people are saying “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable” precisely because Britain’s political institutions work just fine for them, thank you very much. The way things are is, by and large, the way they should be.

When certain others say “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable”, it isn’t because they’re acutely preoccupied by such a malaise afflicting democratic aspirations in Britain and want to find a way of tackling it. Rather, it’s because they want to take advantage of the malaise. They have an active stake in the malaise continuing. In fact, some people saying so are the embodiment of that malaise: for example, Blairite careerists in the Labour Party, or the sector of elite opinion in Britain whose calling is to shit smarmily upon anything that gives off even the slightest whiff of being socialist.

Beyond the question of Jeremy Corbyn’s electability, you see, lies a question about the reality of power in Britain. To wit: given the fact that it has a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, and given the fact that the current arrangement is laying waste to the prospect of a decent life for millions in society, what ought the majority of people in society do about it?

As far as I can see, it looks like there are a lot more people in Britain thinking about this question than there were a few years back. And they realise that the answer is not voting for political Robocops such as Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham. Clearly the answer entails a great deal more than simply voting for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. But it seems to be one way among many of posing the question.

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Craven Counterfactuals


Bertie Ahern

In last week’s column, Irish Times column, Kathy Sheridan reminded the paper’s readership that politicians were human. This came as a useful corrective to those who believed they were shape-shifting lizards from another dimension. This week, the columnist wishes us to imagine that even the most crooked timber of humanity in politician form, in this case Bertie Ahern, can be wielded as the most virtuous of instruments.

Basically Sheridan says that Bertie Ahern would have done a better job negotiating on behalf of Greece than its former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. She contends that personality, in particular that of Varoufakis, was a decisive factor in the shape of the so-called agreement finally forced upon Greece. A more wily and amoral operator, under the same circumstances, she suggests, would have produced a substantially better outcome.

The trouble is, she provides no convincing evidence in support of this suggestion.

Ahern’s achievement in negotiating the Belfast Agreement forms the basis for Sheridan’s claim. But a moment’s reflection should reveal that the Belfast Agreement negotiations were completely different to those revolving around Greece’s austerity packages and debt burden. To state the obvious: it was a different time, different place, different stakes, and different power relations.

When Kathy Sheridan’s anti-hero was conducting negotiations, he enjoyed broad backing not only from the Irish political establishment, business groups, the media and broad civil society, but from Irish America and the US government.  Ahern also had a good relationship with the other key actor in negotiations, the UK government.

What was more, there was a will and momentum on the part of all participants to reach some form of agreement. And above all: reaching a deal was perceived by and large as a good thing for capitalism in Ireland.

No doubt Ahern played a part in establishing a deal, but the overall tendency was towards a deal anyway. The singular brilliance of Ahern’s performance in this regard is mostly a myth concocted by a political establishment and an admiring media that likes to narrate Irish history in terms of the grand feats of heroic statesmen.

In the case of Greece’s negotiations with the Eurozone countries, there was no will on the part of any of the other countries to reach any kind of agreement that might have altered the initial position of continued austerity and insurmountable debt burdens for Greece.

As many commentators been already pointed out, the political cost to the participants, the Irish government included, was unthinkable. A deal that involved anything other than a humiliating climb-down from the Greek government would have undermined the entire premise of economic policy throughout the EU.

Let us recall, not least because it is largely ignored by the press, that the EU’s overarching economic policy entails, variously: removing the welfare state provision that formed the basis of Europe’s post-war settlement; protecting the financial sector at all costs; promoting an ever-deepening competition between the workforces of member states for the purposes of capitalist exploitation –the race to the bottom-; and of placing key decisions over economic management beyond any kind of democratic control.

All this would be undermined if the Eurozone governments were seen to relent in their stance on Greece. It is unthinkable, given these circumstances, that someone like Bertie Ahern would have the ability, to say nothing of the inclination, to deliver a better outcome for the Greek people.

It is only if you accept, as a self-evident and natural fact, that the ‘national interest’ and the interests of capital are one and the same that you might imagine Bertie Ahern playing such a role. Unfortunately, this acceptance runs deep and wide in Ireland, and public commentators are particularly afflicted.

The narrative rehearsed by Kathy Sheridan, that the failure of the Greek government to get a better outcome all boils down to Varoufakis’s intransigence, or his naivety, or his Burberry scarf, or his pointy-headed intellectualism, is largely the same as that offered by senior Irish politicians -who, according to the Sunday Business Post, referred to Varoufakis and Tsipras as “clowns” and “eejits”.

epa04817993 Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan (L-R), Dutch Finance Minister and President of Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem, International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan, and French Finance Minister Michel Sapin at the start of a special Eurogroup Finance ministers meeting on Greek crisis at EU council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 25 June 2015. Eurozone finance ministers will reconvene on to assess the situation, before the European Union's 28 leaders kick off their two-day summit in Brussels later the day. A special meeting of the 19 eurozone leaders could also be held.  Greece and its creditors continued marathon talks on how to avoid a bankruptcy in the country, just hours before an EU summit meant to bookend the crisis.  EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET
I suppose we can imagine the amazed incomprehension of someone like Michael Noonan, when confronted with a finance minister unwilling to go along with the dogma that animates Eurogroup meetings. It must be like what an everyday person might feel on coming downstairs on a Monday morning to find a drunken zebra sprawled on one’s sofa. But even such disorientation and annoyance have little to do with personality, or intellectual mien. It is just that the drive of the Eurogroup is strenuously opposed to even the sort of mild alleviation that the Syriza government was seeking on behalf of the Greek people. If Varoufakis was a pain in the hoop to them, it was because of the forces he represented.

The same narrative also presents the rest of the Eurogroup –and let us recall that this group is an informal grouping, 95% of its members are men, and it is subject to neither democratic oversight nor accountability- as experienced and sensible lieutenants of their respective ships of state. It reduces politics to the ultimate insider game, beyond the reach of democratic control.

The ultimate function of this narrative is to cloak the naked class savagery on display: the utter contempt for democracy, the vindictive destruction of Greek society, the matter-of-fact looting of public assets, and to propose that Greece -and, by extension everyone else- should just submit to Europe’s neoliberal consensus.

What is most ridiculous about this particular version, however, is the way we are supposed to think that someone like Bertie Ahern could stand up against such robbery, whilst ignoring the fact that the present finance minister, Michael Noonan, who serves the same masters, got stuck right in. But since politics is no place for novices, we are suggested it might be best if we keep our noses out of things, lest we cause even more damage, or lest we crack the thin veneer between civilisation and barbarism. Craven conservatism is what will keep us right in the end.

Won’t it?

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Joan Burton and the “Language of Priorities”

Aneurin Bevan

Aneurin Bevan

In recent days, particularly in light of Syriza’s submission to what has been described, rightly, as a ‘Carthaginian’ austerity package for Greece, I have been wondering whether the Irish Labour Party might have had a better handle on things than I had given credit. Whereas what awaits Greece is further misery, it looks as though there are the makings of some kind of recovery along social democratic lines in Ireland. And whilst I have been trenchantly harsh on this blog about the decisions taken by Joan Burton and her party in government, I think that events call for a reassessment. Certainly there were elements of her address to the MacGill Summer School last night that, if not made of the stuff that will shift us substantially towards socialism, at least promise some sort of change of direction.

After all, if the choice is between inflicting harsh punishment and inflicting even harsher punishment, then opting for the former is a reasonable course of action, if the point is to preserve what exists in terms of social welfare provision. And whilst some of the Minister for Social Protection’s actions may have appeared as scapegoating, particularly in relation to welfare payments, what if there was no alternative? What if greater stringency in welfare provision is a precondition for forging a political path toward a more equal society?


I have put a lot of my time and effort over the last four years in government into enforcing the standards people want for Ireland and our life together as a community. It was never about finicky rule-making or catching people out in a vengeful way. It is about the fundamentals of a fair society. It is about the balance of power in a democracy of equal citizens. It is about making sure each person makes a fair contribution.

Perhaps what we have failed to recognise in recent years is that proper democratic renewal requires public virtue. It is not enough to single out corrupt elites as the source of the problem: it is a matter of collective citizen responsibility. Unless there is sufficient consciousness of the need for each to work in the benefit of all, then the pursuit of a socialist agenda is doomed to failure. So too, I think, is the simplistic notion, voiced by the new Social Democrats formation in recent days, that one can simply import a social model from another country –in this case the Nordic model- for our own ends.

I think Burton recognises this, as illustrated below:

Our task together is to be a civilised and free society, rooted in our distinct Irish history and culture. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, it’s about the content of our character. In a democracy, the government will reflect the content of the character of the people. It can also foster and sustain civic values and standards.

Pragmatism far too often appears as a dirty word in the vocabulary of the left. But pragmatism is neither good nor bad: it is the outcome of pragmatic action that counts, not the method itself. In this case, Burton is surely right to recognise both full employment and excellent public services as the immediate goal to be achieved, upon which a more fitting foundation for socialism can be built.

We have to build and secure our common standards and values. And we have to do this while we implement the right policies to secure full employment, to build excellent infrastructure and public services, and develop all the regions of Ireland.

Burton is surely right, moreover, to point to the corrosive corruption in Ireland’s public culture, brought about by “white-collar fraud”, “political corruption”, “rip-offs of consumers”, and “tax evasion”, as the source of “cynicism about the political and democratic process”.

The question is whether we as a socie…wait, did I say Joan Burton, last night at the MacGill Summer School? Sorry, I meant Mary Harney of the Progressive Democrats.

In 2002.

Sorry about that. Well, it just goes to show: talk is cheap.

Joan Burton’s real speech did contain some items worth highlighting. Whilst I think the Social Democrats are a fairly pointless exercise, they may have caused Joan Burton to profess her faith in the religion of socialism.

Burton’s Damascene conversion, revealed at MacGill’s happy hunting ground for seasoned observers and political insiders, comes only days after attacking the Greek government for proposing to resist the imposition of savage anti-socialist, anti-democratic measures on the Greek population.

In her MacGill address –the real one-, Burton quoted Dostoevsky that ‘compassion is the chief law of human existence’, and said that ‘ensuring the State is compassionate in its duty to its people’ was the starting point for the future.

Seasoned observers of compassion will recall how both George Bush and David Cameron cited it as the cardinal virtue for political action.

Burton, of course, is not the only Irish politician to séance the ghost of Aneurin Bevan in recent times in a country where only a minority have experience of the National Health Service or free education. Her colleague in government, Leo Varadkar, who in his capacity as Minister for Health opens up Accident and Emergency departments in private hospitals, likened the roll-out of free GP care to children under the age of 6 to the foundation of the NHS. But whereas Varadkar’s channelling of Bevan is a half-assed afterthought geared at masking his neoliberal outlook, Joan Burton’s is…oh, never mind. But it is worse, in a way. It is the same ghoulish performance that on other occasions summons James Connolly to provide a posthumous seal of approval for the idea that There Is No Alternative.


That great politician Nye Bevan, who created the NHS, had some valuable words of wisdom for those who wanted more than could realistically be delivered.

The language of priorities, he said, is the religion of socialism.

Bevan’s ‘words of wisdom’ were not intended for those ‘who wanted more than could be realistically delivered’. They were made initially, at the Labour Party conference in 1949, in response to a call from Labour MP Richard Acland that the Labour Party ought to pursue a “spiritual approach”.

Bevan contended that the programme the Labour Party was carrying out meant that ““Suffer the little children to come unto me”” was ‘not now something which is only said from the pulpit.”

He said:

We have woven it into the warp and woof of our national life, and we have made the claims of the children come first. What is national planning but the insistence that human beings shall make ethical choices on a national scale?…The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism. We have accepted over the last four years that the first claims upon the national product shall be decided nationally and they have been those of the women, the children and the old people.

In Ireland, the deprivation rate for children rose from 24.5% in 2011 to 30.5% in 2013, as the Fine Gael-Labour coalition pursued the same overall economic policies as its predecessors. The consistent poverty rate rose from 6.9% to 8.2%.

Bevan revisited his remarks following the Labour Party defeat in the 1955 general elections. He said –defending nationalisation- that the fact so many working-class people had not voted Labour was a problem

of education, not of surrender! This so-called affluent society is an ugly society still. It is a vulgar society. It is a meretricious society. It is a society in which priorities have all gone wrong. I once said –and I do not want to quote myself too frequently- that the language of priorities was the language of Socialism, and there is nothing wrong with that statement, but you can only get your priorities right if you have the power to put them right, and the argument, comrades, is about power in society. If we managed to get a majority in Great Britain by the clever exploitation of contemporary psychology, and we did not get the commanding heights of the economy in our power, then we did not get the priorities right. The argument is about power and only about power, because only by the possession of power can you get the priorities right.

Whereas for Bevan, priorities meant “ethical choices on a national scale” that gave “the women, the children and the old people” first claims on the national product, Joan Burton took to the streets brandishing a placard bearing a tricolour, insisting that the EU’s neoliberal stability treaty –which buried ethical choices and prioritised debt repayments to banks above all else- was in the national interest.

So too was putting the boot into the already impoverished people of Greece.

Whilst Burton might utter the same words as Aneurin Bevan, she certainly does not speak the same language.


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