The Citizens

I had a piece in the Irish Times last week on the We The Citizens group. It is reproduced below. There are a couple of things I would have addressed had I had the time and the presence of mind.

First, I would have addressed the question of who precisely is included in the category of citizen.

I don’t know if We The Citizens, in conducting its assemblies, had stipulated anywhere that you had to fit some sort of citizenship criteria (whether Irish, EU or otherwise) in order to participate. They may well have left the criteria open. Nonetheless there is a problem, as a couple of people pointed out, that the term citizen is exclusionary, and therefore by using citizen as a political name you are actually excluding from participation people who do not fall under the statist definition of citizen. As a result, for me to write as ‘a citizen’ meant an implicit acceptance of these parameters.

I don’t think the use of citizen as a political name has to entail excluding anyone from participation, but if you are going to use it then you should make expressly clear, which I didn’t do, that it excludes no-one. I suppose my use of it is influenced by Rancière’s notion of what constitutes democratic movement ‘a double movement of the transgression of limits: a movement to extend the equality of public man to other domains of common life, in particular all those that govern the capitalist illimitation of wealth; and also a movement to affirm the belonging of everyone and anyone to this incessantly privatized public sphere’. But then again, whether or not ‘citizen’ is effective in this way depends on how, when and where you use it.

The other thing would have been to address what the WTC research actually suggests. One thing I thought interesting was how people’s opinions on particular political issues (albeit refined and presented in advance by expert facilitators) could change substantially on account of deliberative experience within a short period of time. Whatever one might say about the scope and the function of WTC, this is a useful piece of information. It shows that the opinions currently believed to be held by members of the public are by no means the opinions they would hold if they had the chance to develop them through sustained contact with proper information.

This means there are serious questions to be posed here in terms of media influence and how people’s conception of politics, and of political problems, are shaped by their representation in the media. Even the treatment of We The Citizens can be used here as an example. Even though, as I say in the article, its media profile was strikingly high, this did not mean an uncritical acceptance.

For example, on the We The Citizens Prime Time special, the whole question of citizen discontent and participation was introduced with a series of library images of unrest in the streets, thereby presenting citizens who do not feel served by the parliamentary system as a chaotic and violent mob.

Following that, two of the ‘judges’ on the programme worked for Independent News and Media. The very fact that RTE sought those two individuals out as the interpreters of the limits of citizen participation (and their interpretations were altogether predictable), combined with the images used to prefigure the discussion, serve to illustrate how even when it comes to operating within the narrow parameters set forth by We The Citizens, there is an in-built manipulation of reflexes that serves to distort and confound public perception.

Contradictions in grassroots ideals of citizens group

We The Citizens makes assumptions that limit free speech and exclude alternative views

THE RECENT series of three articles on these pages by We The Citizens chairman Senator Fiach Mac Conghail should prompt us to think more deeply about representation, citizenship and democracy.

In a time of major political and economic crisis, not just in Ireland but throughout Europe, We The Citizens proposes to demonstrate that “our Republic could benefit by citizens coming together in new forms of public decision-making.”

Mac Conghail’s articles have been helpful in fleshing out precisely how, in We The Citizens’ view, those new forms ought to work.

But the details reveal the devil. Mac Conghail claims the assemblies proposed by We The Citizens are a threat to political elites. Yet in his articles he accepts, without question, that the conditions imposed on the Irish population by the EU-IMF-ECB bailout are both legitimate and necessary.

He claims, furthermore, that citizen assemblies should be used to ease the passage of legislation to meet these conditions.

But there is a telling contradiction. The policies of austerity imposed to date have concentrated even more power over how society ought to be run in the hands of unelected elites.

In Ireland, the economic adjustment programme signed by the Irish government entails policies that drive up unemployment and drive down wages. At the same time, tens of billions of euro in speculator debts are forced on to the population in order to save the financial system.

These policies – which were imposed, not voted for – will have a dreadful effect on people’s power to engage in democratic activity.

While the central theme of the regional assemblies organised by We The Citizens was citizen empowerment, Mac Conghail implicitly supports policies that will lead to the continued disempowerment of citizens.

If this were any run-of-the-mill civil society initiative, we might be inclined to respond “who cares?” But We The Citizens is not normal. Its name, with the use of the definite article, suggests the group has the power to represent the collective voice of all citizens.

It has received ample funding via a wealthy benefactor [Atlantic Philanthropies] that no ordinary group of citizens could hope to replicate.

In the midst of a political and economic crisis, its media profile has been strikingly high. Its board comprises prominent figures from business, academia, and non-governmental organisations, including the head of corporate affairs at Intel Ireland.

Intel Ireland is a powerful political actor in its own right. In 2009 it spent a six-figure sum on a political campaign supporting the Lisbon Treaty.

Also on the board is Brigid Laffan, the former chairwoman of the Ireland for Europe citizens’ campaign for a Yes vote in the second Lisbon Treaty referendum.

It is hard to imagine that We The Citizens would have received the same attention had its board members included prominent opponents of the Lisbon Treaty.

And yet perhaps the biggest threat to citizen empowerment in coming years will be the centralisation of fiscal decision-making with European authorities.

The Euro-Plus Pact agreed by European governments will mean longer working hours, lower wages, the destruction of collective bargaining rights and the dismantling of welfare states across member states. The consequences for active citizenship will be disastrous.

While in Ireland We The Citizens presents its visions for facilitating the objectives of unelected elites, citizens in Spain and Greece have confronted the political and economic crisis by organising their own mass assemblies in public spaces.

In these assemblies, under the banner of Real Democracy Now!, every citizen is considered equal, with equal importance given to voice of the university professor and the precarious or unemployed worker.

The assemblies are not funded by billionaires and they do not operate according to the prescriptions of experts.

They are a powerful grassroots re-engagement with the basic tenets of democracy and active citizenship.

We the Citizens, on the other hand, solidifies the stratification of Irish society, with oversight from experts and business elites. It presents the image of a flowering of grassroots democracy, but paves the way for a technocratic administration of society, in the interests of wealth and unelected power, all at the expense of the citizens.

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