Comment left on Fintan O’Toole’s article in today’s Irish Times titled ‘No longer citizens, just customers’.
The transition from citizen to consumer in Ireland did not happen overnight. The meaning of the word ‘citizen’ has changed radically over the last 100 years in Ireland. From ‘Irish Citizen Army’ -the militant armed defence of workers against the forces of the State and big business- to ‘We The Citizens’: expert-led experiments in deliberative decision-making that leave all conflicts between labour and capital at the door. In the interim, an alteration in the constitutional meaning of citizenship, so that it meant membership of a racial-biological community.
But there is a parallel transition, in the meaning of the word ‘public’. James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party had as its object the ‘public ownership by the Irish people of the land, and instruments of production, distribution and exchange’, and the ‘the consequent conversion of the means of production, distribution and exchange into the common property of society, to be held and controlled by a democratic state in the interests of the entire community.’ Today, however, we see a Labour Party in government introducing a ‘Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill 2013’. However, the ‘Public Interest’ at stake here is not that of the entire community, but that of financial speculators, who are using public debt as a lever for privatisation, asset stripping, and attacks on workers’ rights.
The meanings of words are determined by the balance of forces that contest them, not just their dictionary definitions. If ‘citizenship’ is stripped of any sense of conflict, and reduced to mere rational choice within narrow parameters, and the odd letter to the Irish Times, and if ‘public’ just means ‘State property’, then we should be looking at the forces that sustain their current meanings, which in turn clear the way for social destruction. Here we have to point the finger at RTE, the Irish Times and other mass media outlets, but in particular we must single out the Labour Party and the trade unions that prop up the current government. They are turning symbols of Ireland’s history of democratic struggle into instruments of domination and plunder.