Monthly Archives: May 2013

We are defined by the choices they make

‘ The migrants we can see (even in the rough cartoon image) are young, strong and struggling to make the best of things and making the obviously correct decision to leave the country. On the other hand the mainly fat (and yes they are mainly fat) people who ‘choose’ to remain in Ireland as feckless doleys are seen literally dancing out of the dole office throwing their money in the air. It doesn’t take a genius to pull out the underlying message there.’

critical media review

The new Irish Independent advertisement campaign ‘we are defined by the choices we make‘ raised a few eyebrows; firstly, by using the well practiced method of not revealing what the advertisements were for a couple of days and secondly, by using some mildly provocative juxtaposed imaging with the defining choices tagline, for example a pro-choice versus pro-life badge and so on. The advertisement gives a sense of faux radicalism with images such as a bishop juxtaposed with a red condom, but in reality all the images remain safely within ideological boundaries.

The campaign also gives the appearance of there being two sides to the story; both of which you can read in the Irish Independent, before making your mind up. This of course is nonsense in itself, there usually being all sorts of sides and shades of grey. The image of private sector versus public sector represents this most continuing the trope of a direct division between…

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Of St Vincent De Paul and Racist Echoes

Evening Echo

I left the following comment on the Facebook page of Cork’s Evening Echo, which showed the above image of its front page. Note the ‘You got it right, Neil!’ item on the right hand side, referring to the racist comments of DJ Neil Prendeville, who said on his Cork96FM show that “we have created a country that has people who won’t work now joined by people who cant work, we provide medical cards to Africans while irish children go sick because their working parents can’t afford a doctor’s visit or prescription, we provide social welfare to former Russians and childrens allowance to kids living in eastern Europe“. The remarks of the St Vincent De Paul boss reported on the Evening Echo are in precisely the same vein.

Disgraceful racist remarks. This is one of the reasons why I am against charity. I agree with the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: “I don’t believe in charity; I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from top to bottom.”

In Ireland there is a weak understanding of social rights, not least because the constitution calls for charity to inform all the State’s institutions. The effect of this is that Department of Social Protection or whatever it is called nowadays treats the people it is supposed to serve as charity cases, and agencies such as St Vincent De Paul operate as de facto State agencies. Hence they never call into question the decisive political power of the rich over government priorities. The overall amount allocated to overseas aid is a political choice. Whatever amount is available is decided against other areas of government spending.

Look at the tens of billions spent on bailing out banks: this shows that the government is prioritising the health of the financial sector over the health of the population. But you won’t hear charities challenging this because they won’t challenge the legitimacy of the government, since they are effectively part of the State. Instead they identify with the priorities of the State, and with privileging one group of people over another in the final instance: because charity is ultimately about privilege and the denial of rights. So if the State uses racist criteria, so too will charities.

See previous posts on charity:

 

 

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Institutionalised corruption: Alan Shatter and An Garda Síochána

This is a comment I left on The Journal.ie’s poll question ‘Should Alan Shatter have made his Prime Time comments?‘ 

There is something very strange about a Minister for Justice making such a flagrant display of hubristic arrogance. However, it is not just a matter of Alan Shatter. Why was he made privy to the information about Mick Wallace?

And apparently this was in the context of the penalty points investigation! How can the conclusions of the penalty points investigation be taken in any way seriously in light of such a clear indication that Shatter and senior gardai had a common agenda in discrediting Mick Wallace? Any Minister for Justice with a modicum of respect for the public he or she is supposed to serve would recognise that a TD’s personal history is of no consequence when he asks questions of a government minister as a public representative.

Any Minister for Justice with a modicum of respect for the public he or she is supposed to serve would immediately recognise that information proffered about Mick Wallace in the context of an investigation of alleged garda wrongdoing is a blatant demonstration of contempt for the public on the part of the gardai in question. He or she would have instigated some form of proceedings against whoever proffered the information.

That is not what Alan Shatter did. He was only too glad to make a mental note of the information supplied in order to use it as a means of attacking Wallace personally. If this is not institutionalised corruption, I do not know what is. For Enda Kenny to claim in Shatter’s defence that Shatter does not keep files on anyone in particular is making a spectacular show of obscuring the point: Shatter does not need to keep files on anyone because he has had people prepared to supply him with dirt whenever expedient. If Shatter is being protected by Kenny at the moment, it is only out of fear that an admission of arrogant wrongdoing will weaken the moral legitimacy of a government hell-bent on destroying living standards, public services and welfare provision in the interests of finance capital.

A rotten minister in a rotten government, in cahoots with a rotten police force.

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Translation: The 15M and Occam’s star, by John Brown.

This is a translation of an article by John Brown, evaluating the effects of 15M, originally published on his blog on the 14th May.

The 15M and Occam’s star

Anyone who reads the press of the Spanish regime these days will notice that on the whole it reports a diminished presence of the 15M on the streets. Some speak of a ‘better organisation’, others fear a ‘radicalisation’, but all are agreed upon its diminished presence as a movement in public space, however much the Puerta del Sol was filled with people once again on the 12th of May 2013 for the celebration of the second anniversary. Indeed, if the 15M had been a movement, that is, a group of persons with a precise political or social objective, those who celebrate or lament its demise would not be wrong, but the 15M is something else, or perhaps not even a thing, but an event. First of all, its name being that of a date ought to alert us of this fact. No-one is in doubt that the 15th of May 2011 something important happened in the Spanish State, first in the big cities, and subsequently in the whole of the country. For the first time, a multitude outside the control of the State, the parties and the unions took over en masse the centres of numerous major cities, demanding a refounding of democracy, clamouring against corruption and against the effects of the crisis on a youth population already plagued by mass unemployment. It was a matter of redefining the rules of the game so that it was no longer the same people -the social majority- who lost out. The 15M went on for a month in the Puerta del Sol and turned into the real parliament, the one in which the problems of the population are dealt with, and the citizens themselves intervene freely and directly in the framework of an open assembly. First it was to reconquer democracy as a space for the word and responsibility of each person before everyone else. It was not merely a matter of demonstrating that the rebellious multitude of the 15M existed: this happened in the first weeks during which the contact between very diverse social, ideological and aesthetic realities created a general climate of trust and friendship. Beyond this, it was also a matter -unwittingly- of recovering one of the  proofs upon which the ancient city was based, in which, as Aristotle said, “citizens are friends.” Political passion in democracy produces friendship. Antagonism too.

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The crisis brought the content for the debates and moblisations. The wave of cuts to wages and in essential public services such as health, education, the massive loss of rights belonging to workers, old people, people dependent on care and their families, and the hundreds of thousands of evictions became urgent themes of moblisation. Commissions were set up, entities that brought their findings to the assemblies on all of these themes. above all, the people who woke up to politics and real citizenship that the 15M took part in a multitude of concrete activities of demanding common goods and rights, of an end to evictions. On all these fronts, power has proved deaf and blind, but the mobilisation has continued to move forward. The different mareas (tides) of public services that draw together workers, users and citizens in general remain active and engaged in struggle, despite the lack of a response from power.

The permanent clash with power as an obstacle lends the reigning pacifism an antagonistic tone to its demands. It is no longer simply a matter of formulating petitions addressed to power, but explicitly, to bring down what is already openly named as ‘the Regime’. This results in a series of social movements whose trajectory depends less and less on the reaction of power and which maintains its demands in an autonomous fashion. In the same way, the Mortgage Victims’ Platform has already reaped important successes: the presentation of the ILP (popular legislative initiative) backed by a million and a half signatures, the verdict of the European Court of Justice against the Spanish mortgage law, and various judges declaring occupations to be legitimate. All this is not the 15M, but it does constitute a reality contaminated by the 15M virus, something that could not have existed on this scale without that initial event.

The independence of the movements, and their perseverance in their goals against a backdrop of general impoverishment of a society on the part of a ‘democratic’ government that is a debt collection agency in the service of finance capital, are causing a wobble in the foundations of the regime. If Francoism maintained itself thanks to the myth of the ‘two Spains’, since 15M there are another two Spains, but distributed in a very different proportion: that of the 1% and that of the 99%. As a result, surveys show an enormous percentage of support for the 15M, for the PAH, for the mareas, a percentage that far surpasses the results of the two major parties put together. The 15M enjoys the support of 75% of the population and the PAH almost 90%. The institutions and the consensuses of the Transition are losing legitimacy at high speed, whilst the movements are gaining it. Perhaps this is the famous constituent process: the progressive unfolding of a potency of the social majority that wishes to give itself another form of political life and another social organisation that allows for something so normal -but so impossible for many people nowadays- as to live with dignity.

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One can surround the parliament from time to time, one can interpellate power via escraches: all of this has its use, since it delegitimises the existing order. However, the essential thing is the admirable perserverance of the social movements, their ability to converge with other movements, their ability to create hegemony. Nowadays, as a friend from Madrid said recently “people talk about politics in the doctor’s waiting room” and at the queues in the markets. In a country whose current regime was founded by a man, Francisco Franco, whose main objective was that “no-one should talk about politics” and in which the truncated “party-based” democracy that currently reins serves to achieve the designs of the “Caudillo” through somewhat less brutal means, this is a colossal victory for democracy.

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We know there are dead stars that keep on sending their light millenia after they have gone out. In a certain way, a cause that has ceased to exist continues to produce effects. William of Occam made this hypothesis -before this astronomical phenomenon was known- to illustrate his thesis according to which cause and effect are connected via divine will, which could also dissociate them. The image of a dead star that continues to cast light on us is a sad image for us to use in reference to the 15M, since the 15M remains alive- but it goes on living through its effects. The 15M, like every true event that changes history, has become an absent cause, but by contrast with Occam’s star, an absent cause continues to act, it is its effects, which are fused with the cause itself. It will take a while for us to appreciate them fully in terms of changes in our own political subjectivity, of affirmation of our singular and collective potency, since the effects of the 15M go on taking place within us and counteracting the sad passions induced by power. We were sleeping, and we awoke.

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Debt, Freemanism and Hidings To Nothing

aquifers

‘The ideological aquifers are completely dry’ – El Roto

Today’s Irish Times reports over 100 ‘Freeman’-style arguments used in the Irish courts this year, citing the Law Society Gazette. On Tuesday, Francis Cullen (36) was sentenced to another three months in Mountjoy Prison for refusing to recognise the court’s jurisdiction. He claimed, according to the Irish Times report, that he was ‘a private, sovereign person’.

The Law Society of Ireland ‘advises advise anyone in financial difficulty to get advice from someone who is trained in and knowledgeable about the law as set down in the Constitution and by the Oireachtas and the courts’, according to the Irish Times, which also cites a barrister pointing out the harmful and abusive dimension to providing vulnerable people with legal advice that is false.

100 court cases over the last 12 months seems like a big number to me. It would also be interesting to know how many people planning on using such arguments eventually thought better of doing so, before their case came before the courts.

I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine the appeal of a freeman-style argument. Someone living in a situation of paralysing indebtedness can feel their life is falling apart. The legal fact of being in debt is only one aspect of the private disaster unfolding in their lives, which can also include relationship breakdown, separation from family, and a destructive effect on one’s self-esteem.

An existence as a financially solvent and autonomous individual is a basis for self-respect: that is the kind of existence prized by contemporary society. Spiraling debt is not just a matter of the quantity of debt shooting upward due to interest, fines and penalties. It is also the way in which the means of paying a debt may shrink, in a situation of unemployment and the consequent effects on a person’s morale. Overwhelming debt and a sense of things falling out of control in one’s personal life can have a corrosive effect on a person’s sense of self.

When the legal system appears on the scene, the effect can be traumatic. A split emerges in the mind of the person addressed by the court summons: between the person called upon by the forbidding and imperious complex of courts and solicitors, and the person with a memory and a history, informed by family and relationships and some degree of social worth.

Hence the appeal of the notion that I am a ‘private, sovereign person’: such a notion appears more grounded in reality than the legal ‘fiction’ of a person who exists before the court only by virtue of the fact that he or she is in a situation of a debt that cannot be paid. It follows that if this split can be successfully claimed as a legal fact, then neither the debt nor the court enforcing the payment or punishment in lieu of has any standing. This is an ‘if’ of proportions that are very large and fast approaching infinity.

The appeal can also be explained in terms of the way Freemanism -for want of a better word- preserves particular conceptions of masculinity, petty bourgeois individualism, and property rights.

There is a tendency to draw on patriarchal imagery and rhetoric rooted in feudalism, of a time prior to the recent fall – when women had no political rights and every man his rightful place. We are speaking of Freemen of the land. Ben Gilroy -who says he is not a Freeman, but it scarcely matters since he relies on so much of the same discourse, speaks of the founding fathers of the constitution. Tradesmen who may have had a viable business during a property boom but for whom work has dried up and debt has ballooned may be particularly susceptible to Freemanism. It is worth restating here that dominant media institutions present the ideal existence in terms of independent businessmen-cum-entrepreneurs operating in an age where class has ceased to exist (though of course, you should be eternally grateful you have a job) and social supports are a luxury, not a right. To illustrate, I suggest you turn on Liveline some day.

Paradoxically, a ‘private, sovereign person’ sees their existence as inseparable from the regime of property: ‘You are the sovereign supreme authority over your own self, your own bodily kingdom. If you can claim ownership of nothing else, you can claim ownership of yourself’, as the Sovereign Independent writes. In the final instance, Freemanism is a product of the regime of property and its conventional wisdom. However, one cannot ‘own’ oneself in the same way as one owns a washing machine. You cannot exchange your head for a washing machine.

This is a political problem then, and not a mere problem of insufficient legal advice. We have to draw a distinction between the manipulative chancers who claim expertise and seek public approval, and those people whose desperation and isolation causes them to either seek refuge in tenets of Freemanism in order to cope with personal catastrophe in the face of legal threats, or enthusiastically circulate material that purports to demonstrate the fundamental illegality of the law (usually by reference to some ‘real’ law that has been usurped).

It is not just a matter of the predicament of individuals who end up in jail with hefty sentences for paying heed to these syncretic doctrines: the more such ideas take hold, the more the possibilities for emancipatory democratic politics shrink. Isolation, debt and an internet connection are an explosive cocktail.

I don’t quite know what the best way is of addressing this as a political problem, but it strikes me that the wrong way of addressing it is to consign people who are attracted to such things to the ranks of the politically unacceptable and ridiculous, or identify a reactionary movement where no such thing exists. If a couple of thousand people -I think it was less than that- vote for someone standing on a platform of Direct Democracy in a by-election, promising greater democratic influence over political decisions, that is not so much an augury of a Grillo-style Five Star Movement in Ireland but the symptom of a fracture opening up in the political system, a consequence both of the real, decisive power of neoliberal technocracy and its destructive effect on people’s lives, and the largely successful presentation of politics as equivalent to representation, within a regime of property. In a country with anything approaching a democratic culture, the phenomenon of someone standing for an election in a political party named ‘Direct Democracy’ would be the object of intense ridicule. However, there has been little democratic questioning of the regime of representation in Ireland.

Having watched the evolution of 15-M in Spain closely, and having also observed the swift passage of Ireland’s Occupy event from initial euphoria and promise to puzzling debacle, it is tempting to diagnose the Irish situation in terms of its absences. One such absence is a climate of openness, trust and friendship. Another is any effective critique of representation at this juncture from a left-wing perspective, since it is widely believed that organising a representative political subject takes priority over democratic participation, and, in so far as democratic participation is desirable, it is with a view to laying the basis for a successful electoral vehicle, not the construction of social institutions beyond capitalism and the regime of representation. To me, both absences lay the foundation for a hiding to nothing.

My sense is that the overall absence of social institutions that operate democratically and on the basis of social solidarity, but crucially, that operate in spite of and against the regime of property, means that Freeman-type ideas will take even greater hold in Ireland, especially in the shadow of the new Insolvency Service of Ireland, which effectively turns people into powerless subjects of a regime that exerts control over the minutiae of one’s personal life. Refusing to address the phenomenon of Freemanism as a vivid symptom of a deep political problem, but merely as cause for derision and ridicule, is only going to make things worse.

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Translation: Frontiers of democracy – Pablo Bustinduy

This is a translation of a piece by Pablo Bustinduy, published 15 May 2013 in Público.

Frontiers of democracy

‘An inclusive but largely passive citizen body, embracing both elite and multitude, but whose citizenship would be limited in scope’

Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism.

1. In ancient Greece, freedom (eleutheria) meant: to be free from service. A citizen is whoever has no master and owes nothing to anyone, whoever need not sweat for another to rob him of the fruits of his time and his effort. Beneath, of course, was the body of slaves; behind was that of women and foreigners. In the centre of the square, however, the presence of the demos was scandalous: its rule was not based on lineage, wealth, intelligence or aptitude, but in socialised decision making and political reasoning, in the common power of the free people. Hence most political posts were assigned by drawing lots, and the principal discussions were submitted to the shouts of the assembly: because he who does not work for a tyrant does not entrust him with the ability to decide in his place.

2. In modern democracies, the ‘rule of the people’ becomes the rule of its representatives, and the people a fiction for which equality consists of the vote of an oligarch and that of a worker being of exactly the same value. Everything that separates them –their work, their income and relations, the power that they exercise or is exercised over them, disappears by magic from the political scene. In capitalist democracy, the demos is a smooth, homogeneous, cold surface, where social life leaves no trace and everyone has the same right to not do (almost) anything (almost) ever. But the Greeks had already said that every city carries two other cities within it, that not everyone lives in the same conditions nor do they have the same possibilities. Hence the people is at once the name of the lower classes and the entire social body: because that body is cracked within.

3. In parliament, democracy enters a closed off place that seeks to have the monopoly over what is legal and what is legitimate (it is no coincidence that the parliaments of the South of Europe are shielded by armour: this is in the final instance the porousness of the ‘political sphere’). The representative fiction by principle depoliticises everything that remains outside it. Hence escraches are “pure Nazism” and the million signatures for the referendum on health care are a “parody”. On the other side of that frontier, however, there are more and more people who no longer have cause to maintain the social pact. It is a historic block (in the near tectonic sense of plates of rupture, of a continent that seeks to give itself its own shape) that is growing and is more solid than what one might think. The paradox is that the more pressure it applies against the limit, the more it reaches its own border, its own moments of overflow and definition.

4. In a commentary on the lessons of revolution, Trotsky says that in this kind of situation there are usually two activities that come to the fore which force a retreat rather than a leap forward. The first can find nothing around it but faults, difficulties and impossibilities for movement; the second only sees an obstacle when it splits its head against it. One sees mountains everywhere; the other is convinced that the “ocean is only knee deep” Spinoza said that hope and fear are two symmetrical versions of a single paralysis, of the same inability to act. It is likely that finding a mid-point between these two extremes is today a prerequisite for addressing the problem of organisation.

5. The situation has become more and more unpredictable. The unity of the demos, spoken of so much, is never pre-ordained: it is a dialectical, contradictory process, which advances by disabling limits, exerting force against them, rendering them useless. Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic write in Beyond Democracy:

‘In Petrograd, in 1917, and with 90,000 textile workers (men and women) already on strike, one of the detonators of the revolution was a demonstration of women who, on the 23rd of February, became sick of queuing in front of bakeries and decided to stand outside the head offices of the municipal Duma to demand bread (…) On the way they blocked the trams and stopped outside the doors of factories and offices, inciting, mostly successfully, for work to stop. It is an example of how ‘domestic’ and ‘worker’ categories can be mixed together, the workplace and the space outside it, the occupation of the firm and the Street; it is to create a threshold from which everything can be placed under discussion. At a more modest level, as soon as a breach opens up in reality opens up there can be a surge of that ‘fraternal disorder’ (Babeuf) that produces a community of struggle. In Rouen, in 1968 and after having been invited to stop work, the employees of a shopping street start to debate at street level; any passer-by who wishes joins them, without anyone asking them who they are or in whose name they speak. Frontiers only govern as long as routines govern.’

Processes can occur at many levels and with different logics: what is essential is the gathering of forces in the instant that trajectories cross, when frontiers can be overwhelmed and things can be placed under discussion.

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Suicide and the lilies: A Comment

I left this comment on Olivia O’Leary’s article in today’s Irish Times titled ‘By the manner of his death, Donal Walsh has left a reason to live’, in which the author writes against suicide, saying that ‘existence itself is a privilege’, and citing the line from Luke that says ‘Consider the lilies, how they grow: they toil not, they spin not and yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’ to express what ‘those of us lucky enough to be alive’ ought to ‘live life’ beyond the ‘urge to achieve, or the disappointment that we haven’t’.

The range of choices that appear before someone don’t emerge in a vacuum. They develop over time. We shouldn’t pretend that everyone’s family, friendships, working life and experiences are even roughly the same. Some people see the life in front of them as worth living; others come to a point where they don’t.

Privilege means ‘private law’. Existence cannot be a privilege since it means that there are other people excluded by this private law. But such people do not exist. So we should think about the quality of our existence, not the fact that we exist. Hence it’s fine to speak about considering the lilies, but many people struggle so much with their everyday circumstances that they rarely find themselves in a position to think about the qualities of a lily. You can’t appreciate a lily when the bailiffs are at the door. And anyway, no two people see the same lily.

A New York Times article -How Austerity Kills- reported the other day on how in the US, the suicide rate had ‘jumped during and after the 2007-9 recession’ above and beyond what pre-existing trends would have predicted. In Spain, there is a grisly trend of people opting to kill themselves because they see no prospects to life outside the family home from which they stood to be evicted by the state, operating in the interests of banks. On Saturday, in Solihull, England, Stephanie Bottrill walked out in front of a lorry because she felt she had no way of finding the £20 needed to pay the new so-called bedroom tax on the home she had lived in for the previous 15 years.

If we are not prepared to look at the social factors involved in suicide -not least policy decisions that favour major financial interests over people’s health, welfare and flourishing- and we instead simplify the phenomenon so that it appears as a matter of individual choice, as a matter of being incapable of seeing things in the right way, we end up bolstering the dominant individualist political ideology that draws its power from blaming its victims. If we are interested in putting an end to the horrors caused by suicide, we should think about collective ways of creating a world worth living in.

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