Last night I was at a bit of a loose end between the end of Eastenders and the point where the children have deflated enough to stay in bed without drifting out down the stairs again, so I decided to listen in to some of the MacGill Summer School live stream. Someone tweeted it; this is not the sort of thing I go looking for, honest.
Summer School season in Ireland for me is like a weeks-long twilight of the public imagination. For most of the rest of the year, the media fixes eyes on the capital and the parliament, where an efflorescence of men in suits strike poses to show they mean big business, in heroic attempts to save the economy from the gluttonous desires of the public for luxuries such as health and education.
Then, at Summer School session, the spectacle is dislodged to some wee town down the country. Collars are opened, stalking horses are unleashed, and earnest impassioned discussion with familiar figures in political and media circles gushes forth. Summer School season is where the life of the mind takes wing, a drawing of breath before getting back to the brass tacks of saving the economy from venal bloatedness.
Though reports on what is said at these gatherings fill up a lot of newspaper space and broadcasting time, I don’t know anyone personally who would want to go to such a thing. I seriously doubt there is anyone living in my housing estate who has ever been gripped by the urge to pack the kids in the car and head west or north to hear a discussion on what a real republic might look like or the shape of future political reform.
The only person I can think of who might be so inclined is a dentist who recently took a tooth out for me, who told me he had been reading Garret Fitzgerald’s autobiography on holidays. Nothing human is alien to me, but that doesn’t apply to aliens from outer space, which is what you would have to be to read such a thing.
One function of the Summer School season, I think, is to bolster the sense that what happens the rest of the year round, the spectacle of representative democracy subordinate to capital, is all there is to politics.
There is time and room at the informal gatherings for prominent thinkers to deliver caustic flagellations of the body politic, and reports of these are approvingly held up as evidence that the odd spark in the life of the mind endures, and that those in power are, on the whole, sentient and thinking beings who are doing what they can, given the circumstances.
But the co-ordinates for any such criticisms are already mapped out well in advance: questioning of capitalism as such, and of the class exploitation upon which it depends, lie beyond the intellectual pale.
Anyway, the bit I tuned into was like a comic acting out of everything I imagined such a gathering to entail. There was a well-spoken middle class man in the audience berating Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole for “bottling it” by not standing in the 2011 election. The man -who said his blood was boiling- had himself stood for election, and what grounds did Fintan O’Toole have to say he could know what people thought when he hadn’t gone through the hard work of standing on doorsteps asking for votes? And, moreover, wasn’t the Irish Times and the media responsible for the current crisis too, in the way they had promoted the property bubble with their property supplement. At this point O’Toole pulled the pin from a hand grenade with his teeth, lobbed it in the man’s direction, and, as the man’s guts spattered the stately green stage backdrop, pulled out an AK-47, knocking out the livestream by shooting at the camera.
Not really. He proceeded to defend his decision not to stand in the past election (it wouldn’t have made any difference to the good and would probably have had harmful effects), and to defend the Irish Times whilst recognising its shortcomings (he was proud to work for it, it was a decent institution, it had made lots of proper criticisms of malign political practices).
O’Toole did make the reasonable point, one that is often lost amid the pompous asseverations of people whose life hinges on the truth of the equation politics = elections, that standing in elections is not all there is to democracy, and that journalism, for instance, is a democratic practice.
That depends, of course, on what you mean by journalism. Much of what passes for it is cheerleading for power.
For example, today’s Irish Times has a leader column, titled ‘A temporary necessity’, justifying the four man Economic Management Council (which O’Toole had been criticising in his talk for the utter lack of democratic accountability) in terms of a state of exception:
in what have been extraordinary economic times, the EMC has become an exceptional. but temporary, necessity.
“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, wrote Carl Schmitt. Sovereign are the international lenders, but, according to the dominant discourse, the suspension of even formal democratic appearances, in doing the bidding of the markets, is all part of the recovery of economic sovereignty.
To say you’re doing the Troika’s bidding in order to get your sovereignty back is rather like saying you’re kneecapping yourself with a sledgehammer to get back into winning form for the 400m hurdles at the next Olympics. It makes no actual sense. But if you repeat it enough times and with enough conviction and without fear of contradiction, you can bore or nonplus enough people into letting you get on with it. Besides, once the exception has kicked in, you’re not under any obligation to provide reasonable justification for anything. What do you think this is: a democracy or something?
So, back to the MacGill livestream for a minute. There was a man called Don Thornhill who asked a question from the floor. He said he agreed with Fintan O’Toole on nearly everything. I googled him. Like I said, people do not just wind up at these gatherings because bingo is cancelled that night. He is chairman of something called the National Competitiveness Council, which sounds like a quango for making people poor in the interests of foreign investors. Unless I am mistaken and it was really a Don Thornhill who wandered in because bingo was cancelled. Anyway, he took exception to O’Toole’s contention that Ireland could be called a failed state. In his eyes, the fact that Green Party leader Eamon Ryan stood for elections despite the Green Party’s impending humiliation was an indication that Ireland was not a failed state (for me the fact Eamon Ryan even exists is proof Ireland is a failed state). And so on, blah blah.
The children were now suitably deflated, so that was the end of the livestream watching for me. At the moment when I have to put children to bed I am at my most incapable of consequent thought. The sofa downstairs calls out to me more than any intractable political problem. But last night a couple of things occurred to me.
First, such spectacles unfold as if the present state of exception imposed by the Troika on behalf of the markets is never going to inflict any kind of permanent damage. For all the polite discussions about how society might be improved, there seems to be little awareness, or little concern, at the way society is being reshaped right now: the dismantling of public services, the stripping away of the welfare state, and so on. Nor is there any sense that this reshaping is a political programme that operates at an international, not a national, level.
Part of this is the blithe indifference of the comfortable Irish liberal. But another part, I think, is genuine parochial ignorance. Whilst someone like Fintan O’Toole might win the approval of the audience by saying that the electorate needs to stop electing local gobshites like Michael Lowry, the same audience would not know where to begin with the idea that a problem imposed by European institutions requires responses that entail alliances between peoples of Europe. Instead, you get madcap ideas about special delegations to Europe involving Michael Somers and Mary Robinson. That idea is Fintan O’Toole’s. I mention it because I think he is one of the more enlightened figures in such circles, not because I think he’s an idiot.
Second, these spectacles unfold as if there were no such thing as real political conflict. Not only in the fact that they decidedly avoid any encounter with questions of class conflict, but also in the way they call together figures from as wide a range as the established spectrum allows. So Enda Kenny arrives at the beginning to inaugurate the thing, regurgitating his usual schtick about the best small country in the world in which business can raise families. Then the more critical intellectuals come along and try inscribing the idea of the republic and 1916, then you have the hard-headed economic realists who tell you what the bond markets really want, the psychologists with their psychohistory/psycho history, and so on, and so on.
Where does it all go? Nowhere much. It is a theatrical performance, not a deliberative process: the presentation of a benign image that masks the stark social reality of the politics of the ongoing bailout. It is an interlude where time is allowed to stand still, before real business can resume in a little while.
The worrying thing, I think, is the continued absence of any other site or time, where other people excluded from such performances -people who are the targets and the victims of austerity policies- can talk about the kind of institutions they need to deal with the ‘temporary necessity’ of government by the markets, which now extends as far and as wide as the eye can see.