I was sitting in Mass one day. I can't remember precisely where, or precisely when, but since I was sitting in Mass, it was in Ireland, and a long time ago. There was a priest giving a homily, and everyone was asleep, and I was probably conjugating French verbs in my head or something. Then the priest said something that made me prick up my ears. He said "now I'm sure a lot of you are sitting there thinking, what is this eejit on about, sure I didn't sign up to any of this? I didn't ask my parents to baptise me in the Catholic faith?" A pause, and then he said, with a hint of relish and malice: "Ah, but didn't ye renew your baptismal vows with your confirmation?"
Did we? Did I? My own confirmation experience consisted of a man reading the story of Fatima to the class, since he thought that the confirmation lessons were a load of nonsense and he wouldn't be able to hold the attention of our 10 and 11 year old minds. It would have been more fruitful, I imagine he thought, to enthrall us with the story of the foul and terrifying visions of hell that one of the children witnessed, and the secrets Mary had told the children, one of which entailed the conversion of Russia, or something. So what the priest was saying to teenage me sounded like a load of bollocks. How could I have renew my baptismal vows when I scarcely had any idea what I was getting myself into? This was before the age of clicking on End User Agreements and other automatic acceptances that any rights or claims you may have to anything are thereby rendered null and void, and before the time I was legally able to sign contracts. Though not, come to think of it, confidentiality declarations under Canon Law in the event that I ever became the victim of clerical sex abuse. Thankfully, no such need ever arose.
Somewhere, I can't remember where exactly, Marxist critic Terry Eagleton says one of the problems with Catholicism in Ireland is that Irish Catholics were never taught enough about Catholicism in order to repudiate it properly. I think he's right about this, as my experiences mentioned above illustrate. Clearly, what I was taught -if you can even call it 'taught'- is rubbish. But is it just Catholic teaching? What if this not being told the full story about things -or at least a story compelling enough that you can set about rejecting it- extended into other spheres of thought? Like, for instance, politics?
I am bringing this up because I spent quite a while yesterday reading through the comments on a very well-written article by Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole on the 'normalised freak show' of Anglo Irish debt, about how private banking debt has been transformed into sovereign debt (I'm not linking to the article as I can't be bothered writing to the Irish Times for permission to provide the link).
A visiting alien might arrive in Ireland and, on learning about how the public has had the private debts of bankers transformed into sovereign debt, and that this debt burden will lead to the evisceration of Ireland's social infrastructure, its schools, its hospitals, its welfare services, might conclude that there is something gravely wrong with Ireland's political institutions.
The alien need not be some kind of radical communist from the future to conclude that such a polity could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called democratic, despite the formal constitutional declaration that it is a democratic state. She-He-It might also conclude that the only way to resolve the issue would be for people injured by such a situation -the majority- to look at the way the political institutions operate -to whom do they listen? In whose interests do they act?- and decide on some forms of collective organisation and action that might remedy the situation.
She-he-it would then be puzzled to find that the situation is a great deal more fragmented than that.
She-he-it would encounter many people who have passed into numb resignation. One person says 'Unlike Hotel California where you could check out anytime you like and never leave! The option we still have is emigration. And seeing that the last vestiges of hope has gone it is an option we should all seriously consider!'. Another person says: "It seems that nobody on the corrupt little island is bothered either way. The wasters in The Dail can go about their daily business untouched. The streets are quiet apart from a little parade the other day all jovial and all that. All`s fine there looking at it from abroad." Another person says "God this is so depressing. I really hate this country and all our bloody politicians. I would so love to emigrate, leave the whole place to the bankers and the politicians and let them pay the debt they created."
She-he-it would encounter many others who believe that the political institutions themselves are fine, the means of decision-making are fine, and the real problem is the fact that folks just vote for the wrong people
. What is more, they will go back to voting for the wrong people (Fianna Fáil), again
. Therefore the people -like a twelve year old who condemned himself to a life of guilt, and eternal damnation in the hereafter, when he renewed his baptismal vows at confirmation- are to blame for the entire situation. Thus they must pay the debt.
But guilt here is not conferred by the all-conquering glare of an omniscient God-Policeman, but by the demands of the all-powerful earthly Sovereign whose origin is, well, a bit shady.
A person says -and this is quite representative of what many people think, not just people with the time on their hands to be leaving comments on websites:
I continue to find it surprising, just how little respect so many people like FOT (Fintan O'Toole) have for the concept of democracy and the institutions of the state.
There seems to be total indignation at the idea in Ireland, that people might actually be held responsible for their democratic voting decisions. But this is how democracy, and the concept of the nation, works.
Democracy is predicated on the idea that the 'will of the people' is spoken during election. That as a nation, we collectively make decision on our shared destiny, and make choices on the direction of the nation.
FOT would absolve the voters of all responsibility for their actions. He, and others like him, are creating a caricature of a democratic nation, where people should only be willing to accept rights and privileges in a democratic nation. But are allowed reject the grown up stuff like responsibility and obligations.
You have to do this because you made that vow at your confirmation. This is what many people think, or, if they do not think like this, what they have to contend with, any time they turn on the news or read the analysis of a political correspondent. Politics is representative democracy, nothing more. This, by the way, is also what the General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions thinks too. Even as social democracy collapses across Europe in a giant fondue of contradictions, incoherence, and money-grubbing managerialism, and even as parliaments enact legislation gutting social and labour rights at the behest of the European Central Bank -or in the service of their local compradors- David Begg says that the trade union movement should not challenge the decisions made by the Irish parliament. Civil disobedience, you see, is for Trotskyites.
I responded to that person above like this:
Sorry, this is rubbish. Democracy has nothing to do with the concept of the nation. Democracy is not a form of state. Democracy is not predicated on the idea that the 'will of the people' is spoken during election. This is a particular notion of democracy, based on Hobbes's conception of the sovereign: those individuals who make up 'the people' must surrender any right of their own to the sovereign, who acts on their behalf. According to this conception of the sovereign I must accept that Leo Varadkar and Phil Hogan and so on are carrying out my will for the duration of an election term, even as they dismantle each and any provision that allows for a modicum of democratic equality.
But much as I might wish it otherwise, leaving the odd comment here and there on websites is not really going to change people's minds.
Not only is there an economic, material, crisis placing more and more people in states of enforced deprivation and poverty, as the Central Statistics Office revealed today, but there is also a political crisis.
There are at least two dimensions to the political crisis. One is in institutional terms. The parliament has a kind of zombie legitimacy: its ruling parties legislate while drunk, and responsibility is leveled at 'the politicians' by mass media, and large sections of the public who look on aghast. But there is also a political crisis in terms of language.
We have not developed the vocabulary, or the experience, or been able to set aside the time, to find words for what is going on. Imagine you go to a doctor, and he asks you what the matter is, and you say, well, "this thing here hurts". And in reply he says, "ah, I see. The problem is that your thing is hurty. So we will have to give you some stuff for it and do some things with it. And then the hurty thing is going to be less hurty, sometime, maybe, probably, in the future". No-one would accept this kind of communication was a decent way of practising medicine. But somehow we assume the way we talk and think about things now is adequate to the task of political emancipation. Well it isn't. We need new spaces, new dynamics, for this kind of thing to happen. Otherwise we'll just keep on renewing the same old vows.