Quinn Fragments

This post is mostly a cobbling together of interactions on Facebook over the last week or so, concerning the Sean Quinn affair in the main. I am publishing it here after it occurred to me that I had written more than 1,500 words on the Quinn affair, scattered across various Facebook threads: a telling example of how Facebook appropriates your labour for its own ends without you even realising it, and then as good as scatters it unto the four winds by rendering it untraceable.


Supporters of the Quinn family at the rally in support of the family this weekend   urging the former Anglo Irish Bank to seek the suspension of the contempt orders issued against them this week.

Reading Balzac, Knocking Back Pharmaceuticals Paid For By Private Health Insurance

“Behind every great fortune there is a great crime” said Balzac, at the start of The Godfather. I don’t care much for the Quinns at all, in fact the sycophancy surrounding them always made me want to blow chunks.

However I think this spectacle -Anglo Irish Bank, now State-owned, trying to recover the money loaned to Quinn amid courtroom drama and tales of pan-European scrambles with shady property deals way out east- serves to obscure the far greater crime, which is to say, the wholesale robbery of the working class in Ireland that takes the form of the bank bailout and associated public policies, conducted not through criminality but through legality, and via the same machinery that is now deployed against Quinn. In this way, the Quinn trial functions as a moral fig leaf for naked kleptocracy.


Sean Quinn Goes To The Olympics

Whatever one’s reservations on the whole about the Olympic Games opening ceremony, the idea of a national health service being the object of national celebration in Ireland seems as far removed a prospect as interplanetary space travel. What there is, however, is 5000 people taking to the streets support of a former billionaire who was one of the major investors in Irish private health care before he blew most of the wealth others had produced for him by speculating on complex financial transactions.


The Cavan Zuckerburg

It occurred to me that there is a similarity in people’s attitudes to Facebook and certain people’s attitudes to Sean Quinn. There is no content in Facebook worth looking at or reading that is not the product of the labour of incalculable numbers of people but discussions always seem to depart from the standpoint of what Facebook allows (or does not allow) you to do, as if it were impossible for a better, more useful, productive and creative tool or set of tools to exist (read: means and relations of production in Cavan/Fermanagh area), and as if in light of the impossibility -or extremely remote likelihood- of such tools coming into existence, we have to rely on the ones assembled by right-wing billionaire Mark Zuckerburg (read: Sean Quinn) who, for all the problems we might have with the principle of it, does at the very least lay on this kind of service (read: at the very least he creates jobs), brings good quality jobs to the area and contributes a lot of money to good causes (read: brings good quality jobs to the area and contributes a lot of money to good causes). What this illustrates, I think, is that D4 and Teemore have a lot more in common, ideologically speaking, than either might care to admit. And against those who see some mere pre-modern, bog-based aspect to people mobilising in support of the Quinn group, the Ballyconnell protest is oddly reminiscent of those mostly young people who took to the streets of Dublin protesting Sean Sherlock’s SOPA legislation on the grounds that it would alienate companies such as Facebook and Google (though of course this was not the reason all of them took to the streets).


Quinn Goes To Swan River, West Australia

During his interview with Vincent Browne, Quinn claimed, according to Twitter at least, that he had been a wealth creator since he was born. It is not just Quinn who believes in the sustaining capitalist myth of the individual wealth creator: this is the primary justification offered for all sorts of regressive economic policies under liberal capitalism. There is a natural propensity to truck and barter, as Adam Smith would put it, and hence those able to put that propensity to best use are the best among us, and deserve to be handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Rationalisations of this kind have a strong hold over people’s economic and political imagination when their lives are bound up with the liberal capitalist system.  Who else bar Quinn, asked Cavan man Tom McEnaney in the Daily Mail, could have turned £100 and a hole in the ground into one of the most successful cement companies in the country?

Well, lots of people. The notion of Quinn’s individual genius makes no sense if wrenched from its setting in a given moment in history, under given legal frameworks and political arrangements, in a particular area with certain resources available to meet particular economic demands. What would happen if Sean Quinn had decided to take 300 of Fermanagh’s finest off to some other part of the world with different political institutions, social relations and so on? Karl Marx in his Economic Manuscripts offers a clue:

Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative — the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things. Mr. Peel, he moans, took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 300 persons of the working class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!

Thus the defence of Sean Quinn is not simply the defence of his person, but the defence of a particular mode of production and the cultural glue needed to sustain it, now in crisis. That is why there is so much talk of the family man, the ostentatious displays of patriarchal rectitude, and even captioned photos circulating online of Quinn’s wife, presenting her as a mater dolorosa. That is also why the media prosecution of Sean Quinn focuses on his individual deeds, how his claims measure up against the established facts, his personal moral outlook, and so on. The legitimacy of someone making billions of euro off the labour of others and then blowing it all speculatively as he sees fit is never in question: what is at stake in this frame is merely whether Quinn did so within the bounds of legality and what his obligations are as a result.


Morbid Morality

I notice some of the impeccably neo-liberal voices on my news feeds were throwing up their hands in despair at the spectacle of the thousands of people taking to the streets to support Sean Quinn.

Whilst I do not take claims of D4 nefariousness in the Quinn case all that seriously -as though a person described by Fintan O’Toole in Ship of Fools as ‘the canniest businessman in Ireland’ had been simply taken for a ride by a nest of rich Dublin vipers due to his own naivety- there is certainly a morbid interest, on the part of the media and political establishment, in producing yet another spectacle that hinges on the idea of a morally bankrupt population that deserves to have its house put in order by an upstanding ‘technical’ firm hand.

In this spectacle, Quinn and his followers are held up as an example of pervasive moral laxity and a persuasive case for the introduction of yet another round of ‘reforms’ -which always translates into the withdrawal of rights and the intensification of cutbacks and privatisations, as though the Irish State, which on account of its protection of the interests of banks and financial institutions brought about a drop in income of the poorest households by 18% in the last year and a rise in the incomes of the richest households by 4%, were an entity that deserved loyalty and fidelity.

That such a programme of dispossession and impoverishment, entailing extortion of ordinary people to sate the appetites of ‘the markets’, is supported by the main political parties (who will say anything to prolong their own political shelf-life) and the media (who stand squarely behind the interests of a capitalist class that until relatively recently treated Quinn as a hero), is the chief moral obscenity, and we shouldn’t lose sight of it during the relentless coverage of the Quinn case.


The Border’s Benevolent Feudal Lord?

As for the rally itself, Irish nationalism of the 32 county variety is worth considering, both from the standpoint of understanding why the rally took place, but also why it has received so much coverage when so many other protests, rallies and public gatherings and the issues they relate to have been studiously ignored, unless there was some irruption of violence that allowed the assembled to be represented as a dangerous mob.

The Quinns are from Fermanagh, Jarlath Burns and Joe Kernan from Armagh and Mickey Harte from Tyrone were all prominent attendees. Quinn has been a major backer of the GAA -and of course his brother was GAA president at one point.

I doubt very much that all those who turned out this past weekend did so mainly with a view to defend the right of billionaires to gamble away the wealth created for them by wage labourers; at least some will have turned out in defence of what they see is a vital ingredient in any chance of future prosperity for the region, that is, a local businessman whose investments are driven not by the sort of icy cold calculation that keeps capitalism on the go but a kind of benevolent feudalism.

But the nationalist dimension is worth pondering too: the degree of cross-border circulation -or behaving for the most part as if the border did not exist- is something that many people from Dublin don’t get sight of or experience all that much. Quinn’s rise in the 1990s, and the increased prosperity in the places he operated, took place alongside a reduction in tension in border counties with the end of the armed conflict. And since then the GAA in Ulster –as a cross-border organisation- has thrived. I would not underestimate just how much GAA sporting life is part of the fabric of everyday life there. That is something to bear in mind in terms of the politics of this: when Jarlath Burns spoke about the ‘GAA community’ supporting Quinn: he was not talking about a group of people living within the Irish State and bound by its laws but a community that sees itself in the final instance as living beyond the constraints or definition of either jurisdiction in Ireland.

This takes on particular piquancy in the case of Peter Darragh Quinn, who has decided not to bother returning to the Republic of Ireland to face jail time. He might well argue since the border is illegitimate, neither jurisdiction called into being by that border is legitimate (though taken to its logical conclusion that doesn’t augur well for Quinn Jr’s property interests). 


We’ll have none of your class conflict around here: this is a local Empire, for local people

It’s striking how the language of empire rolls so easily off the tongue when it comes to Quinn’s supporters. When people call for Quinn to rebuild his empire, they forget that any emperor has as his corollary imperial subjects (to say nothing of slaves).

People are right to boil it down to a conflict between rich and poor, and in the final analysis it is quite clear which side Sean Quinn would prefer to be on. Nonetheless people still took to the streets in support of Quinn, when it seems unimaginable that they would do so in support of, say, the poorest in those regions who were being driven into desperation from seeing their incomes dropping by 20% over the last year.  This means that ‘we look after our own’ claims from GAA figures who took part –and let’s not forget that a few of them have had substantial and not entirely successful endeavours as participants in the property speculation industry- ought to ring hollow. One only has to go to a county GAA match to see that there are class distinctions in operation there too: for instance, in the choice of pub, or the mode of transport, among other things.

But since everyone wearing the same colours is out supporting the same county, there is a sense of fraternity forged –genuinely felt by some, less so by others- that serves to gloss over disparities in wealth and power, so the likes of Quinn, and it is not just Quinn, but any local potentate, appear on the scene as merely one of the boys (a way in which the GAA resembles the Orange Order a lot more than it would care to admit).

So far, so normal. That is pretty much the way domination has operated in many rural areas of Ireland for a long time. And another part of the sympathy for Quinn can be put down to the way the prominent local businessman is viewed an important community figure not just on account of the businesses he owns but because the owning of those businesses confers him with a certain standing that entails other civic duties. There can be bonds of trust established that appear strange and even ridiculous to people on the outside looking in, but a natural part of life to those who live according to them. And in a border area those things can seem a hell of a lot more important than whatever jurisdiction people are supposed to be living in, since the sense of community transcends the border anyway.

Quinn: Cementing Hegemony

And in such a context, it is Quinn’s earthly localness that provides the cement (no pun intended) for hegemony. The idea that Liberty Insurance or Anglo Irish Bank or whoever it is that takes charge of whatever Quinn concern- should decide to up sticks and move elsewhere, or cut its workforce, or wages and working conditions, appears as an operation conducted by capitalists in the icy water of egotistical calculation, whereas Sean Quinn, operating according to precisely the same rules, is seen, on account of his local connections,  as supporting the community (Marx might have described such a viewpoint as philistine sentimentalism).

But Which Caesar?

As we have seen in media coverage, not only in relation to the Quinn case, but also concerning Denis O’Brien and the household charge, the question of loyalty to the State is coming to the fore. This is to be expected, given that public confidence in Ireland’s constitutional claim to be a democratic state is continually undermined, not only by unelected and anti-democratic bodies such as the ECB, the IMF and the European Commission setting the boundaries of what is permissible, but also by ruling politicians, who simultaneously justify the measures demanded by those bodies as good sense whilst freely admitting that Ireland has lost its sovereignty.

This is where the matter of the border –and rending unto Caesar- really comes into play. For many of those who turned out last weekend, and very many more who would be sympathetic to Sean Quinn, their official status as citizens of the actually existing Irish Republic is little more than a formal nicety, since they live on that side of the border where they are not represented in the Irish parliament nor can they vote in referenda or in Irish presidential elections.

Therefore many of them view the Irish State and its claims to dispense justice with a fair degree of ambivalence -and with some justification, I might add. Did the Irish Caesar ever do anything for its citizens north of the border, in terms of the social and economic policies it enacted, for instance on the question of natural resources, in keeping its claims to be a democratic state for the common good of the Irish nation? It never did, and it never has done. It is no surprise then, that the political and media establishment south of the Border treat any kind of political demand made by such people, or sympathy with them, with deep suspicion. Post Good Friday Agreement, the political and media establishment have a particular conception of citizenship to shore up, and people who incarnate a blurring of formal boundaries, occupying a kind of political no man’s land, are instinctively treated as a sort of threat to stability.

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