Trust, Cynicism and Begrudgery: A Reply

This is a reply I posted on the Irish Times website to an article titled Despite our cynicism of power, we must trust public representatives by Canon Stephen Neill.

There is something piquant about the fact that the author of this piece, calling on us to put our trust in public officials once again, should be the person who established Barack Obama’s connection to Moneygall, and that it is Obama he quotes to diagnose the problem with Irish politics. In fact, no contemporary figure illustrates better why cynicism with politics is so widespread.

If we look beyond the popular appeal of Obama’s polished and resonant rhetoric about hope, block out the empty accolades from his admirers, and observe his record in office, we see a man who presides over an imperial machine that subjugates and kills indiscriminately abroad, and who serves the interests of a financial oligarchy at home, refusing to prosecute the crimes of Wall Street.

People shouldn’t be too surprised at this, mind: the carefully cultivated image was a professional PR exercise, and the financial backing he received from Wall Street institutions explains his appointment of Wall Street insiders –people who serve the financial oligarchy- to key positions in his administration.

What the case of Barack Obama illustrates, then, is that the reason people cannot trust politicians is not because they are untrustworthy people –in a personal capacity, they are probably as trustworthy as any group- but because the political system is subordinate to the interests of wealth and power, not the interests of ordinary people, and within this system, the politicians who flourish represent the former, not the latter. Therefore the latter is indeed entitled to some degree of cynicism.

Moreover, it ought to be borne in mind that our political life is heavily mediated, and dominant media institutions, such as this one, present the interests of the owning class as if they were the interests of the population as a whole. As a consequence, the practice of holding politicians responsible for everything, and focusing on the minutiae of their activities, is a handy and often publicly subsidised alternative to casting light on who really holds power in society, and what the effect is of that power on the lives of ordinary working people: the sort of thing you would expect journalism in the service of democracy to deal with.

Another effect of such a heavily mediated political life is the notion, widely held, and indeed expressed in this article, that representation is the alpha and omega of politics. According to such a notion, citizens are not active political subjects whose participation in political life is continuous and decisive, but occasional voters who, having read the newspapers and listened to the radio programmes of the rich, transfer their powers of agency to an elected representative for the duration of an election term.

As a result, politics is professionalised, the citizens are disempowered, and a fetish develops –as illustrated once again by Barack Obama- for a political nobility -‘people of integrity’- as the author calls them, to come to the aid of the citizens.

But it is precisely this fetish for ‘a few good people’ –often combined with impotent warblings about reform- that serves to foment the cynicism that the author laments. And it stands to reason that such cynicism serves the interests of wealth and power, because it means a disengagement of the citizens from politics, which means more loot for the rich–as is the case at the moment, illustrated by the scandalous funnelling of tens of billions of public money, which could pay for hospitals, schools and vital social services, to private bondholders. The latter, and the politicians who serve them, are no doubt delighted with outbreaks of cynicism and impotent gnashing of teeth.

The problem, however, is that unless people start talking not only in terms of the specific political system, but also –crucially- the specific economic system that allows such robbery to take place, all we will have to talk about, apart from an economic and social death spiral, is more hand-wringing generalities about trust, cynicism, begrudgery, and so on.

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