Slouching towards cliché: A reply to Stephen Collins

This is a reply I posted on the Irish Times website in response to political correspondent Stephen Collins’s opinion piece Things fall apart but Coalition has the centre to hold. A comment on my Facebook thread on the article reads as follows: ‘One difficulty .. lies with the intuitive appeal of moderation among voters. Right wing extremists ( FG, the Labour Party, the Tories, New Democracy etc.) have cleverly dressed up policies that are, by any conception of democratic philosophy, perversions of democracy, as ‘moderate’, ‘sensible’ and by getting that connection embedded in political discourse they’ve overturned many established ways of interpreting political developments… the ‘moderates’ that Collins lauds pose a far greater danger to people than many of the ‘extremists’ running about in his imagination.’ I agree completely with this, and I think it’s worth referring back to the translation I posted a little earlier here, which emphasises the configuration of the ‘systemic Difference in the political imaginary as a monstrous Otherness, grey and brutal, or as an apocalyptic scene of biblical chaos’.  

The ‘moderate/centrist’ vs. ‘extremist’ dyad put to use by Collins in his article is an effect of this configuration. The measured reasonableness, knowingness and consistency of the economic expert or the political insider, regardless of what it is he is saying, and regardless of the obviously destructive outcomes of the policies he advocates, are often experienced, particularly in times of acute crisis, as preferable to anything or anyone that might interrupt the superstitious strivings that come out of the experience of feeling your life dependent on the mood of the capricious gods of the market.

This is a truly remarkable article, for all the wrong reasons. One could go on at length about its shortcomings, but I’ll try to be relatively brief.

The title of the piece and the ‘passionate intensity’ cited in the body of the text are allusions to the Second Coming by WB Yeats. In the repertoire of opinion piece cliché, this is down there with Zhou Enlai saying it would be a bit early to give his opinion on the French Revolution.

In spite of this, it is worth dwelling on Collins’s apocalyptic mise-en-scene. The rough beast slouching towards Leinster House is a ‘range of forces challenging democratic politics’. Collins cites the example of Greece in this regard, and treats the preparedness of the main Greek political parties to obey the dictates of the troika as an example of democratic politics.

Thus he implies that democratic politics is a process characterised by, among other things:

a) the imposition of technocratic rule by external entities, thus placing key economic policy decisions beyond the realm of popular sovereignty, as witnessed with the proposed Greek referendum last year;

b) a mass media campaign of threats and apocalyptic predictions of what would unfold should the Greek people choose the wrong option at the ballot box and defy the will of unaccountable, unelected financial entities;

c) the financial suffocation of the Greek state for anything other than repression, and the wholesale erosion of what ought to be basic rights in a democratic society: to food, to shelter, to health care, in order to ensure that the balance sheets of German banks are kept healthy and the borrowing costs of the German State are kept low.

Things fall apart indeed; among them, in Collins’s hands, is the basic meaning of the word ‘democratic’.

To compound things, Collins opts not to distinguish in any way between those forces that oppose the politics of the Greek bailout because they consider it anti-democratic and the debt imposed on the Greek people illegitimate, and those forces that oppose democracy altogether. Instead, he prefers to be troubled by a vast image of ‘extremists of all hues’.

The binary opposition between ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ serves to obscure an inconvenient truth: it is the ‘moderates’ of the main political parties, who, along with the EU, the ECB and the IMF, are stripping away what remains of European welfare states and the post-war democratic settlement in order to appease ‘the markets’. They look upon the destruction of Greek society –and the poorer parts of other European societies, with more to come- with a gaze as blank and pitile8ss as the sun.

In this context it becomes a key task of political and media establishments to ‘defend the paradigm’, as Ray Kinsella put it in an article in today’s paper. This is why Stephen Collins, in encouraging the government to act with conviction against challenges to the politics of the Irish bailout, is prepared to consign democratic forces such as Syriza, and fascist abominations such as Golden Dawn, under the same category of ‘extremist’.

Most egregiously, however, Collins is so concerned with tarring all opposing forces to the politics of the Troika bailout with the same brush that he chooses to describe two female victims of assault, perpetrated by a fascist thug as ‘protagonists’ in a ‘punch-up’. And it is not as if he can claim ignorance: the original Financial Times article he cites mentions how the member of Golden Dawn ‘repeatedly hit a female candidate of the communist party while appearing live on a television talk show and threw water over a female candidate’, and given that he describes the incident as ‘dreadful’, one assumes he watched it. Had it been a female Fine Gael TD who had been punched repeatedly in the face, would he have described her as a ‘protagonist’ in a ‘punch-up’?

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