This morning one of the Irish Times editorials focuses on the matter of politicians’ expenses. ‘Few things infuriate the public more’, it declares, ‘than a perception that elected representatives are receiving unwarranted or inflated expenses, on top of generous salaries’. This follows on from a feature it published Saturday, in which it claimed that ‘the focus of public resentment in recent days is the expenses and allowances that go with (Oireachtas representative) jobs’.
Naturally enough, there is no mention, in either article, of the possibility that the Irish Times and other media outlets exercise influence in this regard, both in terms of the focus of the public, and in terms of producing fury and resentment.
Indeed, even by stating that ‘few things infuriate the public more’, the Irish Times –but it could be any media outlet, really- is advancing its own image of ‘the public’. This image influences the way readers perceive other groups in society, whether they feel identified with this media-produced ‘public’ or not.
Even if you yourself are not infuriated by politician wages and expenses, even if you think the stripping away of health services and welfare state provision, or bank bailouts, or unemployment, are a lot more important, this is not what ‘the public’ is thinking about, according to the paper. And, even if this ‘public’ might be mistaken in its view (and it often is), this is still a matter of prime importance.
If the primary concern behind all this is wasteful public spending, why is there so much coverage of politician wages and expenses, but by contrast, so little dedicated to the payment of unsecured bank bonds (to say nothing about the payment of other bank debts and the matter of those debts’ legitimacy)?
I think the answer is fairly simple. The primary concern is not wasteful public spending at all, but the drive to call into question the idea that anything at all that belongs to the public can be relied upon. If public political institutions and those who are elected by members of the public can’t be relied upon, then the same logic can automatically extend, not only to public institutions that deal with education, health, housing, and so on, but to those who work in them.
All these things must be submitted to the logic of the market, which is to say, they must be privatised. It is a matter of discrediting the idea that public institutions are of any use at all to the general population, or that any of the services provided by them should be received by people because it is their democratic right as citizens. In the place of citizens, we are given the image of ourselves as the ‘taxpayer’, which is just another name for ‘consumer’, who has to get ‘value for money’.
Now, there are other motivating factors too. The more loathsome and self-seeking politicians can be made to appear –and no doubt this appearance reflects reality in many cases-, the greater the possibilities for spreading resignation and confusion among the public. Resignation that politics –narrowly presented as representative politics, and heaven forbid that anyone should ever take to the streets- can ever bring about any kind of positive change. Confusion about who the thieves really are, and what ought to be done about them. Moreover, all this politician expense-related reporting is quite cheap, since a lot of the information used is made available by the government as a service to the public.
Suffice to say, the long term effects of this will be exceedingly nasty, with the nastiest effects experienced by those at the bottom, as usual. The Irish media –including the high-minded liberal branch- is feeding a mood of anti-political resentment and despair, and all the while casting a smokescreen over who precisely is filling their boots in the process.
The Irish Times says the matter of politician expenses ought to be addressed ‘as preparations are made for an extremely difficult December budget’, and, in impeccably democratic language, claims that ‘elected members should consider their own sheltered circumstances before demanding sacrifices from others’.
The government plans on cutting €3.6 billion from public spending in the December budget. But throughout 2012, €6.7 billion in unsecured bank bonds were paid out in public money. That is, the government was under no formal obligation whatsoever to pay that money. If the Irish media, including the Irish Times, were really concerned with how public money was getting spent, it would have devoted 216 times as much coverage to these payouts as it did to politicians wages and expense claims. But it isn’t, so it didn’t.
What politicians pay themselves has to be presented as a matter of public fury, but what government party politicians –including the ones who make a show out of not claiming for expenses– pay speculators out of the public purse is just part of the natural course of events.
This is what kleptocracy looks like.
(Figures from Irish Times (averaged monthly politician wages and expenditure) and Bondwatch website (unsecured bonds))