Representing The Guilty

From Evernote:

Representing The Guilty

This is the last translation I am going to do from Público for a while, since a bit of variety might not be a bad idea. At the same time I think it’s worth taking a look at this article because it deals with the whole question of political representation, which, as I’ve been pointing out in earlier posts, scarcely appears at all in Irish public discourse, unless it is in terms of paring down the number of TDs in the Dáil or abolishing the Seanad, neither of which deal with the problem of representation as such, but are merely components of a reformist front so as to ensure that the political and economic system is shielded from proper scrutiny. 


Another thing I have noticed in Ireland, which I might as well mention here, is that whereas talk of exiting the crisis is quite common in Spain, in Ireland it is practically non-existent. It is as though the decades of austerity, that form part of the plans of the Troika, the current Irish government and a large section of the country’s owning class, had already been accepted as an inescapable fate, as though there were a collective tacit admission that, indeed, there really is no alternative. This too, of course, forms part of their plans.

As I have been suggesting, and am probably getting tiresome in saying now, this has to do with the deep attachment to representational politics that endures in Ireland, even when it is abundantly clear, to anyone who cares to look, that the austerity policies that no-one voted for anyway are failing (failing the people that is; whether they are failing members of IBEC is another matter), wreaking catastrophe on huge swathes of the population whilst Fine Gael enthusiastically push their policies through and the Labour Party seems to exist only as a sort of epistemicidal jelly, lubricating Fine Gael’s right-wing agenda and systematically destroying any coherent left-wing meanings of the word ‘labour’ in the public mind.

Meanwhile austerity, as yesterday’s Irish Times leader illustrates, is presented as a naturally occurring phenomenon that people must shoulder, and the burden of private debt is socialised in part via a moralising discipline that seeks to socialise guilt for the debt. We are all responsible. And yet no-one is guilty. Which means everyone is guilty. The complexities of a similar situation are teased out by the following piece. If the prospect of a second ‘bailout’ looms, we might recognise the discourse of immediacy identified by the author here, and, more important, we might find it easier to be wise to the manipulations that will emerge as the question of constitutional amendment and a referendum comes to to the fore.

Representation has failed

Toni Ramoneda


In an interview given to French newspaper Le Monde on 13th December last, Nicolas Sarkozy assured that the Brussels accord adopted on the 9th for the drafting of a new intergovernmental European treaty creates the conditions for exiting the crisis, and that the ratification of said treaty would be carried out in a far more agile way than on previous occasions: "We want everything to ready for the summer of 2012", said the French president with the naturalness of someone who knows himself to be legitimated by the ruling discourse of immediacy. The type of discourse that also justified, some weeks previous, a violent editorial in the same French newspaper against the intention of George Papandreou to submit the European adjustment plan for Greece to referendum: "Can we imagine that a people would accept, unanimously, such a violent purge?" Le Monde wondered back then. A discourse relied upon also by that other supposedly progressive newspaper El País" to denounce that "the harm that this initiative can inflict on the European Union, on the future of Greece and on the image of its leaders can prove incalculable". In the same way, after the elections of 20-N in Spain, the idea has been adopted that the new Government must work hurriedly because of the markets’ urgency.

This discourse of immediacy is characterised by the abundance of words contradictory to the construction of a political project. Purge, crisis, urgency, recession, markets, debt, spending..All these words prevent making projects for a future beyond the decisions taken by those who declare them, whereas the particular nature of political discourse ought to be found, if we follow the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in its capacity to offer a way out of the insecurity of the present through a language (different from religious, nationalist or ideological language) in which the future can intervene as a utopian place. 


This is why the discourses that crop up whenever politics proves incapable of shaking off the present of debt and the markets are precisely the religious, the identitarian and the ideological.

This dictatorship of immediacy, which we could very well call presentism, has been dedicated a book (Enemy army) by Spanish writer Alberto Olmos: "Solidarity has failed", claims the protagonist of the novel (a phrase that is already becoming something like a trending topic of Spanish critical culture) before pointing out: "You have created a world without guilty parties".Might this not be exactly what is happening in our contemporary social and political context in which no one is guilty of anything because we are all responsible for everything? For the water that we waste, for the petrol we consume, for the loans we take out, for the plastic that we do not recycle or the money we do not donate, and, in this way, if we cease our waste and consumption, if we recycle and show solidarity we can look ourselves in the mirror free of guilt. In effect, the failure of solidarity is its own success: quit helping and no-one will help on your behalf.


The political act of solidarity has thus become a moral action and this is why Alberto Olmos, a deeply provocative writer, reproduces the Catholic schema of sin, guilt and penitence, and his narrator spends 279 pages of the novel confessing his own vices and own passions in a form of punishment. Because, when solidarity has failed as a political institution, what emerged once again is confession, sin, and, paradoxically, guilt: the discovery of individualism.

In this way, just as solidarity has become the discourse of individualist morality, urgency had done the same with political ethics. The only responsibility that we should really build us collectively, the election of our representatives, disappears in the wake of the markets (Greece or Italy) 


or of incompetence (supposed or real) of the Government parties (Spain), and the current political alternating (whether from left to right or vice versa) is not democratic, but commercial, because it is not based on the political contest of representation, but in the subordination to the present of the value of the debt. And therefore, since we are all subjects to guilt (because that is the nature of a world without guilty parties) we accept without murmur (or with silent cries of outrage) the punishment of the markets and we spend our existence (like the protagonist of Olmos’s novel) sating impure desires that will do nothing but reinforce our guilt and justify our penitence: budgetary rigour.


It is surprising that political leaders, instead of denouncing a situation that overturns their legitimacy as democratic representatives subordinate to the results of their leadership, should rely on it, for rhetorical purposes in order to obtain ephemeral electoral victories. Though perhaps one should recall that spirit of capitalism that Max Weber spoke about to explain the triumph of a system that articulated religious morality and commercial success thanks to the austerity ethic of Protestant religion. If this is the case, the Christian heritage that gave so much to talk about when the possibility of a constitution for Europe was discussed had become, in the end, the authentic European discourse and if this is so, capitalism understood as a political and moral appreciation of the present will have triumphed: representation has failed.


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