Translation: Pablo Iglesias on the Left

Pablo Iglesias at European Parliament Presidency candidates debate last night. Martin Schulz, who won the vote today, was not in attendance.

Pablo Iglesias

This is a translation of an article by Pablo Iglesias on the matter of the left. It was published yesterday in El País. It was written following a controversial interview in which the Podemos general secretary spoke in contemptuous and dismissive tones in reference to certain leaders and groupings on the left.

Left

I grew up in a family that remembered, in which my grandmother would always talk to me about the shooting of her brother, a socialist, in 1939. I am the grandson of a man condemned to death, also a socialist, whose sentence was then commuted to 30 years, of which he served five. My parents were communist activists when in Spain it was a crime, and my father saw the inside of Carabanchel prison for distributing propaganda. In my earliest childhood memories I can see myself going hand in hand with my parents to the anti-NATO demonstrations and to the meetings of United Left in Soria, in 1986, when my father was a congressional candidate for the province (you can imagine the result). When I was 14 I joined Communist Youth and I spent years as an activist in the student movement and in the movements against globlisation and war. When I finished my doctorate and got a job as a lecturer I was one of those heterodox teachers who go along to demonstrations with students and who include Marxist authors in their bibliography. Unlike the majority of the citizens in my country, I know the Internationale by heart. I have the left proudly tattooed in my guts and I see myself as part of it, but, perhaps because of that, I am well acquainted with its miseries and, above all, its deficiencies.

In politics, form and tone matter at least as much as content, and in a recent interview I made a mistake with the form and the tone, and offended many people. I apologise to them but I would also ask them to attend to the content, which, with better tone and form, I shall set out here.

Perry Anderson wrote that the only conceivable starting point nowadays for a realistic left is to take stock of its historic defeat. In Spain, the failure of the communist left was made plain following the Transition to democracy. It was not that the socioeconomic reality of the era (so well foreseen by that “airhead” [the reference here is to La Pasionaria] Fernando Claudín), the cultural weight of the media, and the international conjuncture revealed the impossibility of revolution and socialism, but rather the enormously limited possibilities of electoral success for the left as it was. The failure of Mitterand and his Common Programme in France, as well as the historic compromise with Christian Democrats by the PCI in Italy, highlighted well the limitations of the standard bearers taken up by our Communist Party.

A great deal of water has passed under the bridge since then and now we are faced with the possibility of changing the political map of Spain in a transformative direction. But none of this has to do with the left. The left remains socially and culturally confined to a corner. The key to the exceptional moment in which we are living lies in the politicisation of the frustrated expectations of the middle sectors of society who are faced with gradual impoverishment. If the 15M served any purpose it was to express this frustration. The 15M highlighted the ingredients for a potential confrontation characterised by a rejection of the ruling political and economic elites, but this new common sense could not be grasped in terms of the categories of left-right; this was something the bosses of the political left did not accept.

Despite the fact the PP won the elections in 2011, elements of crisis in the party system could already be perceived. Before our own irruption, polls signalled the decline in electoral support for the PP and the PSOE. Faced with this new conjuncture, United Left had its opportunity; it would have been enough to simply follow the example of AGE in Galicia. But it spurned the opportunity.

When we decided to launch PODEMOS we thought that we should collaborate with the left, and hence we proposed to United Left and other forces to hold joint open primaries. We believed that this method could mark a healthy turning point: the left would begin to resemble everyday people a bit more. We were unaware then that the arrogance with which our proposal was received would provide us with the opportunity to go very far. We went ahead on our own and thanks to that we did not feel obliged to make concessions to the conservative forms of the left. Thanks to the fact that the left did not want to listen to us we were able to put our hypothesis into practice: that the geography that separates political fields into left and right meant that change, in the progressive sense of the word, was impossible. Upon the symbolic terrain of left-right, those who stand for a politics of defending human rights, sovereignty, social rights and redistributive policies have no way of winning electorally. Whenever the adversary, be it PP or PSOE, calls us radical left and identifies us with its symbols, they bring us onto the terrain where their victory is easy. In politics, whoever chooses the battleground determines the result and that is what we have tried to do ourselves. When we insist on talking about evictions, corruption and inquality and we refrain from getting into the debate of Monarchy vs. Republic, for example, that does not mean that we have become moderate or that we are abandoning principles, but rather that we are accepting that it is not we who define the poltical chessboard.

Profound political changes (which always involve winning institutional power) are only possible at exceptional moments such as the one we are going through, but they require pinpoint strategies. We traced out ours in Vistalegre. We respect those of other comrades but we will not put ourselves on terrain that distances us from a popular majority that is not “on the left” (however much we might like) but that does want change.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Water Charges, Homo Economicus and the Freeloaders

freeloader3

One of the key claims made about the introduction of water charges in Ireland was that it would improve conservation habits. There were attempts to make the public believe that the fundamental problem of water conservation arose from wasteful habits on the part of households. It was people leaving the taps on overnight, not a scandalously underfunded infrastructure with huge leaks, that was at the heart of the matter.

As the infamous PR strategy slide from Irish Water put it, people had to cease to think of themselves as citizens, as the bearers of a right to drink water, and think as consumers instead. Consumers, by their nature, do not look out for the rights of others, but care simply that they themselves might continue to consume.

Hence the solution to the water conservation problem hinged on strengthening our inner homo economicus, the ceaselessly calculating individual who weighs up every action in terms of its economic benefit, regardless of the wider social implications.

Some months back I discussed with a friend the reasons for water charges becoming the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as public protest in Ireland was concerned. I ventured that it was not merely the additional financial burden -which is of course huge, since water charges are effectively a highly regressive tax that hit those with the least the hardest- but the prospect of the discipline that this would impose, the prospect of ceaseless worry in an already straitened household about money going, quite literally, down the drain.

Not much attention has been paid to this side of things in the media, since the dominant frame is that of the bill-paying consumer, and not the person engaged in the endless everyday task of keeping a home up and running (who is usually a woman).

The supposedly wasteful habits of the public are, of course, an alibi for the introduction of water meters, which is the key piece of infrastructure required for the privatisation of the water system.

There is a neat congruence here between this image of the man who leaves his taps on all night and the broader image of a wasteful and profligate populace that must assume its guilt and pay its penance.

There is a sleight-of-hand at work here worth mentioning. It is well known that the public water infrastructure was leaking all over the place (it is less well known that household consumption accounts for a small proportion of the leaks). But elements of this public water infrastructure have now been privatised de facto according to Irish Water’s charging strategy: if the leak is on your dwelling, it is you and you alone who must pay for it. They are now your pipes.

Water charges, then, are not only a means to privatisation: they are also a means to deepening one’s sense of oneself as a private, utility-maximising, cost-benefit-calculating, rational isolated individual or household. As Margaret Thatcher put it: economics are the method: the object is to change the soul. And once your soul is altered, such that water and other public goods appear before your eyes as commodities, your mind is addled by free-market ideology, and you begin to see people who lay claim to water as a genuine public good to be shared as equitably as possible, those who see the right to water as inseparable from a host of other rights and entitlements that form the basis for a decent life in an equal society, as freeloaders.

Save your soul from turning into a neoliberal turd: don’t pay the water charges.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Meaning of Michael Noonan

NoonanLagarde

Michael Noonan will never be rid of the name of Bridget McCole. Even those in Ireland who hold him in the highest regard, those who sing his praises most lustily, cannot ignore what he did to a 54-year-old dying mother of 12 children, when he was Minister for Health in the 1990s.

Michael Noonan is hailed as a hero by Ireland’s business elites, and their scribes. In 2012, the Sunday Business Post described the man who, this week, insisted that Germany and the ECB grind Greek pensioners into the dirt, as

‘a calm, Buddha-like figure exuding authority and optimism, leavened with a sense of humour’.

Noonan, the profile continued, had

‘the appearance of a man at the peak of his game’

He was

‘the master of all he surveys'; ‘popular among his party colleagues, especially the army of bright, ambitious young men and women'; ‘well able to take and justify tough decisions … (but) never the tough bruiser some in the media made him out to be’.

Such glowing tribute would not look out of place in a newspaper from Ceaușescu-era Romania. But for all that, the profile could not avoid noting the ‘negative publicity he received in health at the time over the death of Bridget McCole’. It highlighted the ‘traumatic effect’ the publicity had: on Noonan.

Bridget McCole, along with 1,600 others, had been poisoned: infected with Hepatitis C. She had been administered anti-D Human Immunogloblin manufactured by the State’s Blood Transfusion Service Board. The anti-D, it emerged in the course of the subsequent inquiry, had been extracted from a patient with hepatitis, without the patient’s consent. The victims’ umbrella group, Positive Action, was threatened with “uncertainties, delays, stresses, confrontation and costs” if it chose to go further than what was on offer from the State. As Fintan O’Toole summarised:

‘The message was clear – accept the expert group report, take the money, don’t ask for an admission of liability, and don’t ask any more questions.’

Bridget McCole decided to pursue her case in spite of the threats. She wanted to sue under an assumed name. It was a reasonable enough request, but the State insisted that her identity be exposed to the public: the subtle application of stigma, of being exposed in public as the bearer of a disease, would doubtless prevent others who might be minded to sue from getting notions.

As Bridget McCole lay dying, Michael Noonan consented to threatening her and her family with ruin. O’Toole:

‘solicitors for the BTSB wrote to her solicitors offering to admit liability, to settle her case and to apologise for the BTSB negligence. But they warned that if Mrs McCole refused to settle and continued to seek exemplary or punitive damages, they would seek “all additional costs thereby incurred”‘.

They would make an example out of her.

Noonan approved.

Noonan was the Minister for Health. Bridget McCole was the victim of gross negligence on the part of a State body that was covering its tracks.

In a democratic society, someone in Noonan’s position of power is bound to act in the interests of the citizen failed by the relevant public body. In this case, however, Noonan acted in the interests of the State, and in keeping with the urgings of the body covering its tracks.

Behind Noonan was the swell of established practice, the sense cultivated over long decades in the top echelons of Ireland’s political, business and medical worlds, that if you give an inch, the unentitled mob will take a mile. Noonan, the Minister for Health, gave the nod to the letter based on an idea of the victim -the person demanding her basic rights as a citizen be vindicated- as the enemy.

The vindictiveness, the contempt, the casual dehumanising of the victim- was made plain and widely known when details of the dealings were made public. And yet it was no obstacle to Noonan becoming leader of Fine Gael, and later Minister of Finance.

As noted above, Noonan’s treatment by the press these days, despite this horrible behaviour, stops just short of hagiographical. But even at the time, in the 1990s, when the tawdry details emerged, the Irish Times cast him as a victim too, alongside the women infected with Hepatitis C. Noonan was ‘the victim of a political parsimony which would try to protect the taxpayers’ interests’, A victim with -like Christ- a cross to bear:

Mr Noonan will have to continue to bear his political cross, his only consolation being, perhaps, that his is a smaller and lighter cross than those borne by the women who were the ultimate victims of the whole scandal.

It was precisely Noonan’s ruthlessness, his willingness to make the “tough decisions”, to take one for the team, as demonstrated by his matter-of-fact extreme cruelty to Bridget McCole, that cemented his respected status in the eyes of the great and the good. Respectable Ireland is ever on the lookout for someone willing to put the boot in, someone willing to make sure hard reality prevails, someone willing to take a stand for the State before things get out of hand: someone who embodies precisely those values lauded so highly when it comes to making cuts to vital health, education and social services. Someone who will face down the uppity Greeks, or dying mothers from Donegal: whatever shape the enemy takes.

For all the high-flown claims to “protecting the most vulnerable”, Ireland’s establishment protects its class interests with an intensity that takes on the most vicious of forms when the need arises. And when Noonan puts the boot into Greece, and takes the inevitable flak for it, he does so in the knowledge that ultimately, those who matter have got his back. He is there because of Bridget McCole, not in spite of her.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Translation: ‘Let us take up our weapons against the Gag Law’

This is the translation of a speech by Darío Adanti, a cartoonist and animator currently with Revista Mongolia, a Spanish satirical magazine, given last night at a debate in Madrid titled ‘Social Networks, Jokes, and the Gag Law’. For more on the draconian Gag Law (‘Citizen Security Law’) see here and here.

'If they shut us up they shut you up'

‘If they shut us up they shut you up’

Let us take up our arms against the Gag Law

 

On the 1st of July, the Citizen Security Law, known by everyone as the Gag Law [Ley Mordaza], comes into force.

 

The first thing to note in the drafting of the law is that there is an error in the title. It lacks a prefix. It ought to be called the “Counter-Citizen Security Law”, since it attacks the fundamental freedoms that belong to citizens: freedom of assembly, freedom of information and the freedom of expression that includes the much-maligned and forgotten freedom to be humorous, or the right to say goofy stuff.

 

“Glorification of terrorism” and “Offending religious sentiment” are already being used as alibis to censor those who dissent. Put two and two together and what we get is a repressive cocktail with the sole objective of silencing uncomfortable voices, so as to maintain the privileges that the political and economic elites have been building up since the Transition and which they now see endangered. We are in a new century, everything has changed: globalisation, technology and the new forms of communicating with one another, such as social networks, are things that, even still, are slipping from our grasp. What is public, and what is private: this is a debate that we still owe ourselves as a society.

 

It is a new century, a new millennium, and the old formulas are falling away, useless, in the face of this explosion of new forms of association, of expression, of politics, and, also, of repression.

 

And just to prove that the old formulas no longer work, even the old adage that “Comedy equals Drama plus Time” no longer works these days…and it does not work because if you make a joke today about a drama that took place 21 centuries ago such as the murder of Jesus of Nazareth, two thousand years later, this joke can create serious problems for you.

 

Nowadays not even the passage of time is a useful guide for doing comedy.

 

That’s how it is, the world has changed, it’s no longer the done thing to be crucified, flayed, or thrown to the lions as in those bygone times. Nowadays it’s more virtual: they crucify you in front of public opinion, they flay you with exorbitant fines, and they finally throw you to the lions of disrepute with preventative imprisonment and serious charges.

 

How strange it is that those who claim to love the person who, as legend has it, was brave enough to refuse to allow the empire to silence his message, who kicked the moneylenders out of the temple, who opposed the capitulation of the Pharisees and who risked his life by refusing to fulfil laws that to him did not seem just, these same people, his faithful followers, are, right now, the Pharisees of their time: the Empire of their time; they are, right now: those who silence, who judge, who repress, who crucify and pursue anyone who does not think like them.

 

Indeed, it is they who are Rome, it is they who are Caesar, it is they who are the Pontius Pilates of the 21st century who free the Barrabases of their time so as to crucify those who dissent.

 

I, who abhor any kind of terrorism regardless of its ideological justification, propose: that the law should also include “glorification of economic terrorism”: this silent terrorism that costs millions of lives throughout the planet through austericide, unemployment, evictions, graft, speculation and corruption.

 

Because if “glorifying terrorism” were a crime, the IMF, the ECB, the rating agencies, the vulture funds, the banking sector, and most of the States on the planet would have to be put on trial, and many of you -presidents, ministers and public representatives would be, right now, in prison.

 

I propose: that just as there exists a law that punishes “Offence to religious sentiments”, there should be a law punishing “Offence to scientific sentiments”. And so many religious schools, media outlets, institutions, associations to which you belong, support and fund with our taxes, would have to be closed down and you would have to be brought up on charges for serious offences against reason and the progress of your own species.

 

I propose: that just as you can penalise our meetings and assemblies, that the public should be able to penalise its representatives when they meet among themselves without previous authorisation from the public that has elected them.

 

I propose: that in the same way that we shall not be able to take photographs of agents of law and order carrying out their duties, even when they go beyond the bounds of those duties, that citizens can NOT be photographed when we go to demonstrations or meetings and that we can NOT be recorded by the police or intelligence services without the previous granting of image rights on our part.

 

I propose: that our citizen organisations and movements can NOT be infiltrated and that our phones and computers can NOT be tapped or hacked in order to listen to or read conversations that are private.

 

And I propose that our past can NOT be dragged out and published on social networks, placed out of context with the goal of incriminating us, because it attacks our right to a good name, to be forgotten and to having been more of an asshole in the past than what we are in the present.

 

If all of this were put into law, then the law would, indeed, be a Citizen Security Law.

 

In the meantime, this law will continue to have a harmful error in its title, it will go on needing a prefix, and it will be, as it is now, a Security Law Against the Citizens.

 

A law that criminalises tools that belong to us such as information, photographs, humour, free association and opinion, tacitly admitting something that appeared to be forgotten: that free association, image and word, can be dangerous weapons and that these weapons, moreover, are already in our hands.

 

And so from the Platform in Defence of Freedom of Information, I call on everyone: journalists, activists, tweeters, humourists, actors, scriptwriters, designers, presenters, comedians, online debaters, bloggers, photographers, directors, editors, artists, and every citizen responsible for and committed to freedom, to take up these, our weapons, to protect us against and to denounce this unjust and repressive LAW that attacks the fundamental rights of citizens.

 

And finally, Mr Interior Minister, I confess that I am guilty of comedy, of belonging to the dangerous unarmed band of those who believe in freedom and democracy, and a militant and soldier of the image and the word.

 

These are my weapons and I am not prepared to put them down despite your damned Gag Law.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Note On Not Paying Water Charges

Debate abounds about the possibilities for a progressive government, or a left government, or whatever you want to call it, taking shape in Ireland after the next elections in light of recent opinion polls. I have serious doubts that such a thing is likely. Nonetheless, I believe that the collective act of not paying the water charges would be indispensable for this to happen, and indeed, in light of present circumstances, indispensable to any kind of broad progressive-left-socialist-real democratic movement in Ireland.

People refusing to pay water charges have been subjected to all manner of threats from ruling politicians, channelled by the mainstream media. They have been pilloried as freeloaders and law breakers. Such threats serve their purpose if they are not faced down by a countervailing force, when no-one asks: who are these people to issue such threats, and why?

What is at stake with Irish Water and the payment of water charges can be explained in terms of legality and legitimacy. The institutions of the State, and the parties of the political establishment, view legality and legitimacy as one and the same. If it is legal, then it is legitimate.

The introduction of Irish Water; the multi-billion bailout of wealthy bondholders; cuts to the top rate of income tax alongside cuts to payments to lone parents; debt write-downs for billionaires whilst 101-year-olds lie sick for days on hospital trolleys: all these things, not only from the government point of view but also from the point of view, lamentably, of Ireland’s trade union leadership, are legitimate because they are legal.

Moreover, since the constitution says Ireland is a democratic State, then the actions of that State, regardless of how destructive they prove, are democratic. And so it goes. But it is important to point out that the State itself flagrantly disregards its legal obligations whenever it sees fit.

To give a pertinent example, given today’s proceedings in Geneva: Ireland is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And yet the policies that have been implemented by the State, particularly in recent years under the austerity agenda, have amounted to an attack on these rights. What is more, even though the Irish government had the opportunity to give greater protection to such rights arising from the Constitutional Convention it established, it refused to do so.  Neither the Irish government nor the regime media, which from the outset supported bank bailouts and austerity, and the consequent attacks on economic, social and cultural rights as self-evident obligations, are in any position to lecture anyone in Ireland, least of all those most acutely affected by these attacks, on what is legitimate and democratic.

The prevailing definition of what is legitimate and what is democratic, and the prevailing identification of legality with legitimacy, amount, to paraphrase the Catholic Church, to the Preferential Option For The Rich. Hence if people seek political change in the absence of any will to contest the legitimacy of the actions of those in power, and if they do so based on the conviction, or at least the assumption, that what the State does is legitimate because it is the State and because the rules have ordained it so, then popular mobilisation for democratic change is bound to flounder.

Few things are more restrictive and debilitating for progressive forces than the idea that you can just elect a government and reverse whatever has been implemented, using the same instruments and in the same way of operating.

Unless there is a mobilised populace that imposes its own norms, concerning what is legitimate and what is not, then we will just have more of the same. Ireland’s ruling cliques would like nothing more than for the oligarchical definition of democracy to continue to hold sway, for people in Ireland to be isolated from the broader understanding of democracy that is unfolding elsewhere. For it is not just in Ireland that people are refusing to pay water charges as a means of establishing democratic rule. Barcelona en Comú, for example, declared in its election manifesto that Barcelona’s City Council ‘must guarantee universal access to water, and its management ought to be conducted on the basis of social and environmental criteria, not subject to private business’. To this end, Barcelona en Comú has said it is prepared to promote a campaign of non-payment in order to bring the water supply back under municipal control.

Either we will have democracy, or we will have the Preferential Option for Denis O’Brien.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

There Be Dragons

Very often boys and girls have a lot more common sense than many adults who have been warped as they grew up. We do not only need to look after our children and guarantee their rights, but we must listen to them and allow them to speak. – Ada Colau

Zog

Zog

Before bedtime last night my son asked if we could go to school a bit earlier the following morning. Why, I asked. He lifted his shirt to show an eye-wateringly rough gash on his side. Resisting the urge to faint, I asked him why this meant he wanted to go to school early. “To show everyone.” He had fallen outside on the tarmac while playing football.

Half an hour later, after the application of antiseptic and gauze, he was in bed, now howling and wincing from the sting. I went downstairs to sort a couple of things out. When I came back up, maybe five minutes later, his sister, who is four, was in the room. The light was off and it was dark. She doesn’t like the dark. She had taken a chair from her own room and placed it at his bedside and was sat up, in the dark, watching over him. Don’t worry, I’m looking after him, she said.

When our children get upset by something late in the day, they can’t settle and become hyper. She had been drifting off to sleep before her brother’s pained howls, and now she was looking for stories. She picked out Zog, by Julia Donaldson. Zog is the story of a dragon going through school, learning each year to do one of the things dragons need to be taught, in order to become a dragon – to fly, to roar, to breathe fire, to capture princesses, and to fight.

Zog is the most enthusiastic dragon in his class, but at each year of his schooling he seems unsuited to the tasks set to him. He falls and hurts himself when he tries to fly. He goes hoarse when he tries to roar. He singes himself when he tries to breathe fire (apparently dragons can also breathe ice, but they are told by the teacher that they should not). He is beaten away with ease when he besieges a castle to capture a princess.

At each pitfall, he has a chance encounter with Pearl, who tends to his afflictions with plasters and peppermints. When he fails to capture a princess, she says, perhaps you’d like to capture me? Pearl, it turns out, is also a princess. He brings her back to the other dragons, whom she looks after when they are sick and injured. But after a year, a knight in armour comes to rescue her. Zog, who is now learning to fight, rears up to fight the knight, roaring that Pearl is his. Then Pearl places herself between the knight and the dragon, saying she does not want to be a princess, and she does not want fighting. She wants to be a doctor. And so, it turns out, does the knight. So Pearl, the knight and Zog decide to become a flying doctor team, and Madame Dragon, Zog’s teacher, agrees it is a good idea.

In the end, Zog leaves behind all the things he is being trained to do at school that are supposed to make you a dragon- fighting, roaring, taking hostage, breathing fire- except fly. Pearl refuses to be a damsel in distress, rejects her position of privilege and wealth, and hangs out with the mortal enemies of her family. The warrior knight decides he would be better off healing rather than injuring. As a children’s story, Zog stands radically opposed to the standard feudal fairytale, whether in traditional or Disney form.

Zog suggests there is no good reason for things to be the way they are. It suggests we would all be much better off if we reached beyond the narrow role we are assigned by school, by family, by gender norms, or by nationality and notions of military valour, and thought instead about how we can help each other. It suggests that the expectations we are taught to have for ourselves can turn us into something we were never meant to be.

Of course, it is a story for children. In the adult world, the idea that you should care for someone who doesn’t look like you, or for someone who comes from the dangerous part of town, so often gets dismissed as unrealistic and immature fantasy. The idea that schools leave a repressive imprint on people is just so much childish babble. The idea we could live in a world without war, without contending forces of annihilation, is the sort of thing a five-year-old would come out with. Why ask children’s opinions on anything? Sure what do they know?

My daughter is growing up in a country where people in power pretend to care about children. “Cherishing all the children equally”, and the rest. But the same people are the ones who insist on maturity. Maturity means accepting the way of the world, and it just so happens that this way benefits them more than it does most people. As Fintan O’Toole wrote the other day, 6.8% of children in Ireland lived in consistent poverty in 2008. By 2013 it was 11.7 per cent, in his words, ‘an entire Galway city plus an entire Limerick city of poor kids‘. This is what having the maturity to accept the way of the world does to a country.

Last night, my daughter braved her fear of the dark to sit beside her brother for a bit because he was in pain. In Zog, Pearl is not in the slightest afraid of the dragons, nor they of her. Why would you be afraid of someone who says they will look after you? It turns out, however, that there are lots of people who are afraid of the people that are supposed to look after them.

A report on an ombudsman investigation in yesterday’s Irish Times, by its Health Correspondent Paul Cullen, begins: ‘patients are afraid to complain about the care they receive in hospitals because of concerns over possible repercussions for themselves or their loved ones’, and concludes ‘the investigation discovered many users of hospital services were afraid of repercussions, did not believe anything would change as a result of complaining and found it difficult to discover how to complain.’

Why are people afraid of the people who are there to care for them? If you are a child reading a story like Zog, you probably think hospitals are full of good people who make you better (and they mostly are, to be fair), so why would you be afraid of them? You will probably be perplexed about the idea you can have a hospital that doesn’t let some people in because they haven’t got enough money, because you don’t even know what money is yet. But somewhere along the line, you learn, as many people do, to grow up and accept reality.

Who taught us to be so afraid? Who taught us that it was OK for people to make a profit out of the pain and vulnerability of others? Who taught us it was OK to say nothing about any of this, to accept it, and to be “mature” about it? Recently deceased writer Eduardo Galeano once paid tribute to the dead Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, saying he was “a man who never betrayed the child he once had been.” I doubt there’s anyone who feels they could say the same thing about themselves. But perhaps we could start overcoming our fears, dare to believe that there are many others who feel the same as us, and confront the voices that never stop urging a betrayal.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

No Big Words Please, We’re British

Owen Jones and Iñigo Errejón

Owen Jones and Iñigo Errejón

Owen Jones has an article on The Guardian website today, contrasting Podemos’s approach to political communication with that of ‘the British left’. He says that the latter must ‘abandon the old shackles of the left’, and that its language ‘often seems intended to exclude, full of rhetoric and terminology that only those who have associated with leftwing milieus could ever hope to digest’. He also criticises the culture of ‘the British left’, describing it as ‘operating in the most rampantly individualistic way’.

The first thing that struck me when reading this is that in fact, there are parts of ‘the British left’ – I apologise if my scare quotes appear post-modern, let me assure you they are necessary- who are communicating just fine. For example, in Scotland.

Secondly, it is not as if Podemos itself speaks with one voice. True enough, Pablo Iglesias and others are skilled media communicators. But some of the main figures also write things that are as indigestible for the uninitiated as anything you will ever come across in Britain. Take for example the writings of its political secretary, Owen Jones-lookalike Iñigo Errejón. Here is a translated excerpt of a sentence of his:

Let us recall that old conservative liberal fantasy that flirted with the possibility of the existence of a democracy without a people –it is surely from here that we get the hysteria unleashed in the use of the term ‘populist’-, a democracy of citizen consumers lacking in collective will.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing something like the above: on the contrary. Some concepts are difficult, and they need to be explored with specialised language. The world, including the political world, is complex, and not every decent idea can be pared down to one syllable words with the meaning left intact.

Raymond Williams knew this. In his collected series of interviews Politics and Letters, the Welsh cultural critic mentions his impression that when listening to a French militant or trade union leader being interviewed:

‘they command a much greater vocabulary than their English social equivalents, which may eventually have an effect of the quality of what they say.’

Williams also speaks of his ‘distress’ during his years in adult education, at

‘the blocks people encountered when some perfectly necessary concept was used, and the easy way that could slip into anti-intellectualism, or the more unfortunate case of somebody who comes across a word but doesn’t fully understand it, yet starts to use it, often in the labour movement.’

When Williams sought

‘to write a series in Tribune on words that caused difficulty – typically enough, they were not interested. I had a very strong sense, as in everything else, that working-class people needed to command all the tools with which social transactions are conducted’.

That is, the development of a specialised vocabulary is something working-class people –or, if you like, everyday people- actually need in order to empower themselves.

What Owen Jones describes as ‘online “safe spaces”’ aren’t necessarily a bad thing. True, there may be plenty of jargon-heavy writing, and confused writing, and people showing off. But again, not everyone can describe their predicament, the way they encounter the world, in the simplest of terms. This is because things are rarely that simple, as people’s lives are full of complexity and contradiction. To put it another way, let’s use the analogy of a musical instrument. You need to spend a great many hours playing badly before you start playing well. That is not to say that everyone will become a virtuoso, or even competently, but sometimes just trying to put things into words helps clarify things in your mind.

Also, not all the ‘British left’ is averse to keeping things simple. If you read a copy of Socialist Worker, for example, the prose is usually clear enough. Whether people are convinced by it and want to come back for more is another matter.

When Owen Jones talks about the way Podemos communicates, he seems to have severed it from everything else that has been going on in Spanish society for the last few years, including many phenomena that really have not come to the fore in British society, at least not on the same level. I am thinking here, of course, of 15M, without which Podemos would simply not exist.

Owen Jones cites the need for

‘a wide-ranging discussion about how we best achieve political representation for working people and all those denied a voice.’

But by placing this as his foremost concern, or even his only concern, he ignores one of the crucial factors in 15M’s explosive impact on Spanish politics as society: not the idea that such people need proper representatives, but that they are unrepresentable, that they have the capacity speak with their own voice. That is, a rejection of representative democracy as the sine qua non of popular emancipation. We see this crucial element expressed in a recent interview with the mayor-elect of Barcelona, Ada Colau:

‘We can never go back to delegating democracy: it is voting every four years that has got us into this’

But also in writing from other members of Podemos:

‘the Podemos method has given expression to a common sense that has been hegemonic in this country for some time, but which political representation and electoral arithmetic have however systematically prevented from making a reality. The central themes of Podemos’s programme and campaign (the fight against corruption, the audit of debt, the sharing of work and wealth, the defence of social rights and public services) expresses clearly, precisely and resoundingly a common sense of the majority that does not fit within the institutions. And these matters have not been defined and articulated from above, but through the active work and participation of ordinary people.’

To repeat: ‘these matters have not been defined and articulated from above, but through the active work and participation of ordinary people.’ Most of this work was done pre-Podemos, before figureheads such as Pablo Iglesias came to the fore, and the major controversy within Podemos, since the Citizen Assembly that established the organisational structure of Podemos, has been the way in which all this involvement of everyday people, a politics of everyone and anyone, has been subordinated and marginalised, so as to give way to the primacy of the mediated spectacle of Iglesias and others.

There were resounding successes in the municipal elections in Spain: in Barcelona, Madrid and Zaragoza, to name the three most important places. These platforms included participants in Podemos, but their crucial success factor was widespread participation from a great many others outside these ranks. By contrast, there were much more modest wins for Podemos proper in the regional government elections, far below the expectations raised by the high-flown rhetoric of the top tier.

If this tells us anything, it is that the terminology and rhetoric of Podemos’s top tier –which is indeed geared towards what Owen Jones calls ‘political representation for working people’, is not the most important thing, but rather. the realisation that it is when those excluded from representative institutions re-establish politics on their own terms, in their own language, that real democratic empowerment is realised.

It is a terrible thing that the Tories have taken power in Britain again, dismantling what remains of the welfare state and embarking on the most brutal and vindictive measures against the poorest in British society. Bar an initial flare-up of protest, there does not seem to be any grasp taken as yet of what so many people in Spain already know: that representative democracy –with its supporting media institutions- is not real democracy, that it is not designed to give people a voice, but to take it away from them. And hence some radical reconfiguration, that goes way beyond the kind of language used, is needed. But first comes the break with the legitimacy of the established order.

People in Scotland certainly seem more aware of this than the more established formations on the British left. On the whole, though, the broad understanding of democracy appears stuck within Churchill’s formulation of ‘the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper’, and Orwell’s urging for plainness and simplicity. Is it not high time to get beyond the idea of democratic politics as coming up with the right little words to convince the little people?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized