My friends at the Cedar Lounge Revolution have a long-standing Sunday Independent Stupid Statement Of The Week feature. There is rarely a shortage of material. It often gives rise to interesting debate. It’s a worthwhile exercise.
But sometimes I think about it in the following terms: imagine a vast abbatoir-sausage factory complex. The screams of thousands of pigs echoing through the streets and fields as they shuffle panicked toward their mechanised death. Chimneys belching out thick mushroom clouds of fetid steam and smoke that envelop the landscape.
Fleets of lorries that smell like burnhouses, full of -pardon the indelicate expression- lips and assholes sausages, trucking down the highways and byways, headed for big shops and small. The vile product making its way onto the nation’s dinner plates every Sunday.
And then you have a few people picking out a few particularly choice examples of sausage and saying, heavens, look at this sausage.
To be clear, I’m not criticising the CLR for this. I think something similar can be said of a lot of what I write here.
So is there anything to be said for looking at the Sunday Independent in isolation -from the other titles at Independent News and Media, from the rest of Ireland’s mass media apparatus? Analytically, politically, perhaps not. But viscerally, oh Jesus, yes.
For here is the truth: the Sunday Independent wants to eat your brains. It enacts this desire day in day out, year in year out, decade in decade out.
It is dedicated to shaping popular consciousness so as to deliver a world in the image of oligarchs and kleptocrats. It wants to stop you thinking for yourself, and it wants you to think there might be something wrong with you if you started to think for yourself.
Yes, there are are some honourable exceptions at work there, and they do what they must, but let’s face it, they don’t count for shit in the broad scheme of things.
You and me and a few others might share their articles once a week or so and give thanks that there is still the odd person occasionally fighting the good fight. But things grind on, regardless, and the thanks we give are really thanks in the direction of Denis O’Brien for continuing to publish such things.
Yesterday I got sent an article that encapsulates everything that is horrific about the Sunday Independent. I would not normally write about this newspaper, but I was asked to, and who am I to say no? The article is about capitalism. It is by Will Hanafin. The title: “Is capitalism dead?” The standfirst begins with ‘Have we replaced old-school capitalism with a new Frankenstein version that benefits only the super-rich?’.
So the first problem is confusion. Even if you are only after arriving from a distant universe and have no idea what capitalism is, you may wonder how it is you can have two different versions of a thing, and for this to mean that the thing might be dead.
Let me illustrate, in case you are a regular Sunday Independent reader. Suppose your Jack Russell terrier dies. And you replace him with a Pekinese. Does this mean dogs are extinct? No. But it is on such premises that the Sunday Independent informs public debate. It does not want you to be able to think properly and consequentially. It does not want you to have a clear idea of what capitalism is. It wants to eat your brains.
What is capitalism, anyway, o Sunday Independent reader? The article offers no definition, but as far as we can glean it is something that does not have bankruptcy. Something supposed to be a ‘red in tooth and claw’ environment, where ‘only the very fittest companies survived’, but somehow, not.
The central concern of the article is to discover how this new version of a thing, that may or may not be dead, but that is supposed to be a different thing to what it actually is, can be ‘fixed’, by ‘us’, that is, ”a country of 1.8 million working people’. ‘We’ are the ‘cash-poor/bill-rich taxpayers’, who have ‘a real feeling that capitalism is on blocks and was abandoned when the banks were bailed out’
This idea of a really existing capitalism that has been fatally defiled by greedy bankers has been a staple of media discourse since the crisis broke in 2008, and has been used as a kind of release valve for popular frustrations as austerity measures have been imposed.
The problem, from this perspective, has never been with capitalism as such, but variously, with a ‘crony capitalism’, or a deadly illness that was threatening a critically ill patient, or ‘corporatism’, whereby the corporate power accumulated under capitalism turns out to have had nothing to do with capitalism, or regulatory failure, whereby the people tasked with regulating supposed functions of the capitalist system such as banking ended up ‘asleep at the wheel’, which is to say, the regulators assumed that there was nothing wrong with capitalism the way it was. It is not as if capitalism was prompting them to think otherwise.
Thus anything bad that happens -poverty, deprivation, unemployment, mass robbery of the public, housing crises, environmental catastrophe- can never be attributed to capitalism as such, but simply something external to capitalism that, like a dastardly mustachioed villain from a penny dreadful, is out to do it in.
In order to find out how this perhaps dead, perhaps different thing can be fixed, the Sunday Independent calls on ‘capitalists as rich as Croesus, but known as independent thinkers’, and ‘ RTE’s George Lee’, the former Fine Gael backbencher, to spice up proceedings’.
Or, to put it another way, the Sunday Independent, whose Maltese billionaire owner made $800m last year, according to Forbes, asked four rich men to give their thoughts on how capitalism can be fixed, because obviously enough, rich men with an ideological commitment to capitalism are the best people to ask about these things.
And as a counterpoint, they got a man who once stood for a political party with a track record of serving the rich, but who either didn’t notice at the time, or, if he did, it didn’t seem to hold him back.
Predictably enough, the canards of corporatism, crony capitalism, the capitalism-as-sick-patient, and the non-regulating regulators get spread around like generous lashings of duck liver parfait. And the perspective of capitalism’s victims is summarily dismissed from view.
To be fair, it is not just the Sunday Independent that does be at this craic, this kind of erasure. Back when Sunday Independent columnist Dan O’Brien was economics editor of the Irish Times, he wrote that it was none other than the bourgeoisie that had made the modern world, such that, as I wrote at the time, it had been the bourgeoisie that had worked in ‘the canals, the mines, the shipyards, the car factories, textile factories, it was the bourgeoisie who harvested all the crops, cooked all the meals, raised all the children, and built all the homes and aircraft hangars and office blocks.’
And to be doubly, indeed sickeningly, fair, despite all the incongruities of the article -a man who made his fortune from supplying services to the US military complaining about the abandoning of free markets, for example- there are some valid points made. A Dragon’s Den panellist gives a good summary of the effects of financialisation on capitalist enterprises, and points out the problem of the public being saddled with private banking debt.
However, he then decides that nonetheless, ‘capitalism is driving society forward, and the engine of capitalism is the primary contribution to the march of humanity.’
Given that most of the world is capitalist, it might be worth asking working people in capitalist South Africa or Haiti or Bangladesh to give that verdict a sense check. Capitalism’s continuing destruction of the environment and the basis for human life itself is of no import, at least not when compared to the ‘millions of businesses formed in the world and the 10,000 businesses set up in Ireland every year’. And so on. And not just in this article, but in a relentless flow of such articles, for years on end, warping your mind and polluting conversation at the dinner table.
Faced with articles like this, and they will keep on coming, what can be done? Maybe some people get a sense of fulfilment out of writing the same thing over and over, day in, day out, for decades on end. I don’t.
Call it a sense of vanity, or even boredom, but since I don’t get paid for anything I write here, and since I’m not a member of any political party, I don’t feel the need to subordinate what I write to some disciplined programme of political emancipation. Sometimes, though, I think: maybe I should. Maybe I should write didactic articles about what capitalism is and how people power can end it, or earnest accounts of how to build socialism in the 21st century. It is, mind you, a thought that comes at a moment of weakness. For one, no-one would read it, and anyway, I would give up two paragraphs into the first article.
But the moment of weakness is real, and it comes when I start pondering the vast power of billionaire-owned institutions to mould what people think, to set limits on what is thinkable, to confound and depoliticise and determine the political agenda. In short, the power of these institutions to eat your brains.
Clearly, we must build institutions that cause the influence of these brain-eating organisms to recede. But also, I think, at a level of ownership, there should be some simple legal rules introduced. Such as: if you’re not resident in the country, if you have opted not to live in the country in order to avoid paying tax, you don’t get to own newspapers and radio stations tasked with informing the public. That to me seems obvious. A democratic society cannot have people whose interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the society itself, including its right to information, exercising such decisive control over public deliberation.
But more immediately, and in relation to the paper under consideration here: I decided some years ago that life was too short and health too precious to be reading the Sunday Independent and absorbing its crypto-Poujadist toxins once a week, let alone throw pennies in the direction of Tony O’Reilly or Denis O’Brien. I think decent people can live life closer to the full if they just say No to its foul effusions. If your brunch partner at a bijou metropolitan trattoria happens to mention a Sunday Independent article, stab him in the face with a fork. If your father approvingly brandishes a copy whilst you are digesting the Sunday roast, on the verge of quoting some piece of mangled ressentiment towards teachers or nurses or trade unions or Muslims or Travellers or ‘the left’, drag him outside for fisticuffs on the front lawn. It is that simple.