Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Progressive Democrats, the Seanad and political reform

I left this comment on Des O’Malley’s article in today’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘Let’s get rid of the sideshow that is the Seanad and focus on what matters’

If Des O’Malley and other erstwhile PDs are worried about the sources of the ‘public disillusionment with the political system’, they may wish to look in the direction of the free market economic doctrine that they so enthusiastically supported, and continue to support. (But they won’t)

The effect of this doctrine has been further concentration of decisive political power in the hands of unelected bodies. It has achieved this through the denigration and dismantling of public institutions. The doctrine followed by the PDs held that health, education, housing, transport and communication should all be provided privately to the greatest degree possible. Public servants were not to be trusted.

Control over these areas has been increasingly concentrated in private hands, safely beyond the capacity of the public to ensure equitable provision. All of the main political parties now share the political and economic perspectives of the Progressive Democrats. They have no intention of using the political system to build public and universal institutions in the interests of equality. Instead they intend to stick with the doctrine.

So the public disillusionment is rather justified.

What the quadrillion or more articles calling for political reform published in the Irish Times since the onset of Ireland’s economic crisis have resolutely left out is the consideration that there are different kinds of political reform.

Political reform can be made in the interests of the working population, or it can be made in the interests of multinational corporations, financiers and so on. In the context of an economic and political crisis that is stripping away job security, welfare state provision and driving down wages and living conditions in the interests of financial capital, it ought to be obvious that any call for political reform that does not deal with the perspective and predicament of the victims of such a crisis, but rather holds forth in general terms about effectiveness, efficiency, policymaking and so on, is fundamentally fraudulent, and on the side of the people making off with the loot.

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A Short Note on Drink and Politics

The growing -and surprising, to my mind- public revulsion with regard to Diageo’s ‘Arthur’s Day’, a mock feast day in which everyone still goes to work –if they have work to go to- before they engage in a carnival celebration intended to humanise a multinational corporation, had me thinking about the intertwining of politics and alcohol in Ireland.

Public houses in Ireland are often painted as part of its political fabric: the site of seditious meetings, passionate debates, and surreptitious encounters between journalists and those who pad the corridors of power. However, these days ‘public’ is a more suitable description of the trading status of a drinking establishment –whether it belongs to a publicly listed company or not- than anything to do with places where a popular political will takes shape amid intense and involved democratic discussions. The atmosphere in many if not most Irish pubs is determined by the availability of a sporting spectacle on a big screen, or loud music designed to minimise conversation and maximise consumption.

Nonetheless pubs still seem to have some resonance as sites where the political happens. Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach whose erstwhile gift was to apply a popular gloss to a right-wing political project, was famous for stopping in Fagan’s for a pint after a hard day’s machinations, thereby affirming his status as one of ‘us’. Meanwhile Doheny and Nesbitt’s was the site in which the free market economic doctrine to be administered to the Irish population was supposedly sketched out on the back of cigarette packets by raffish economists. A couple of months ago the Labour Party Minister Pat Rabbitte was confronted in the same pub by a group of protesters. It subsequently emerged that a function was underway upstairs for officials from the European Central Bank, European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, at which at least one other government minister was present. The press was quick to denounce this intrusion of the rabblement into a reputable establishment, but also to stress what they imagined Rabbitte’s own unruffled response, thereby presenting the Minister as a man who knew how to handle himself in a pub, and who was, therefore, one of ‘us’.

I doubt it is any accident that a common canned response in Ireland to expressions of unease at how people have accumulated large quantities of material wealth is “fuck the begrudgers”, a phrase understood to have come from renowned “drinker with a writing problem” Brendan Behan (though I have been unable to find the original context for the remark: perhaps it was in conversation with Zhou Enlai on the consequences of the French Revolution). It often feels as if the measure of a person’s fundamental authenticity and trustworthiness depends on whether or not they will feel at home in a pub.

I’m glad to say I missed nearly all of the advertising for Arthur’s Day this time around. What sticks in the mind is an advert no doubt from a few years back, which showed crowds in the street raising a glass “To Arthur” in an image of mass docile conviviality and amiability. The image to my mind does not differ all that much from the ideal image of the Irish population sold abroad by political and economic elites: this is not a people likely to get too disputatious, or erect unreasonable barriers to capital, and ever prepared to show their gratitude to the boss. It is worth considering the role of alcohol in lending such an image a degree of truth: contrary to widespread myth, Irish people are not especially gregarious or outgoing. At least not in the absence of alcohol, that is. But as the saying goes, when the drink is in, the wit is out. That has destructive consequences not only for livers and households, but the possibilities of a demos.


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In Materialist Praise of Pope Francis as Jesuit

This is a translation of an article by John Brown, originally published in Voces de Pradillo, 21st September.


(image by @deadelvis_blog)

In Materialist Praise of Pope Francis as Jesuit

The Jesuits were always famed as people who were convoluted and not to be trusted. It was for this that ideologues of the Reformation considered them the legitimate heirs of Machiavelli, and Pascal, in his Provincial Letters, railed against them with his savage irony for their practice of doublethink. The reader of Pascal will recall those long and hilarious quotations that the philosopher makes from the Jesuit confession manuals in which the doctrine of intention is set out. For Jesuit moral theology -as well as for Spinozist ethics, by the way- the ethical meaning of an act is determined not on account of its materiality, but its intention. To give an example that Pascal lifts from one of these manuals: when a priest appears in public without a cassock he commits a mortal sin, but if he has taken off the cassock so as not to dishonour it, since he is heading somewhere to fornicate, this act is no longer a sin. If a priest fornicates, he commits a mortal sin, but if he does it in order to satisfy a bodily craving and not to offend God, he no longer commits it.

To sum up: with a good Jesuit confessor to hand, damnation is an unlikely prospect. To be damned there must be an explicit and determined will to be damned. One has to obey, independently of the acts that are carried out, a kind of categorical imperative of evil (malum radicale) which Kant describes thus: “the source of evil cannot lie in an object determining the will through inclination, nor yet in a natural impulse; it can lie only in a rule made by the will for the use of its freedom, that is, in a maxim” (Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 31: VI, 21).

What for Pascal with his Jansenist rigour is a reprehensible stance and a monstruous doctrine is precisely what allowed the Society of Jesus to enter into contact with every variety of civilisation and to develop, long before liberation theology emerged, a pastoral ministry that was respectful of indigenous cultures. Renowned examples of this pastoral ministry are the Reductions of Paraguay, the missions of Peru and the remarkable adventure of the Jesuits who became mandarins in China and were on the verge of turning the Chinese empire into a Catholic country. The idea that acts matter little and what is essential is the intention thus translates into a political maxim very close to that of Machiavelli, for whom tactics must always be subordinated to the strategic finality. The stance of the Jesuit is a political stance, but as such it responds well to the essentially political character of the Catholic Church described by Carl Schmitt. The Christian politician that is the Jesuit knows how, as Saint Paul says, to be “Greek among the Greeks and a Jew among the Jews”, since what matters is not the rite but the effective intention.

Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, is a Jesuit and this Jesuitism of his is not incidental but an essential characteristic of his thought and action. The doctrine of intention is present in each of his declarations, not as hypocrisy, but rather as evangelical liberation of human reality, of restoring to nature its innocence. Thus, when he reminds people that there should not be so much importance given to matters of sexual morality and that people should not be tormented with such matters, he is subordinating human acts to the intention that inspires them, he is refraining from considering any concrete act as ‘intrinsically evil’. Thus he can claim that even atheists who do righteous work and obey their conscience save themselves, thereby defending in the name of Christianity a complete freedom of thought in line with that claimed by Spinoza in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Acts may be very diverse as long as there exists a true intention. Sin, however, exists, and it exists in that malign will to lose oneself, in that absolute will to disregard the other, in the incapacity to love that liberation theologists named as “objective sin”. An objective sin is the result of a malign will: politically orchestrated misery, torture, State assassination, exploitation, cannot have as their end an obedience to a moral law of love and respect for the other.

Despite the huge plasticity of the evangelical message, not everything goes. Bergoglio, as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, saw fit to associate with the effective head of State of the Republic of Argentina, General Videla, because a politician speaks with the devil himself. This does not mean that he shared his perspectives in the slightest, as was the case, lamentably, with other sectors of the Argentinian church. Bergoglio may have attended official Junta receptions, but above all he was a regular in the slums, in the places where the poorest lived. This does not make him explicitly a liberation theologian, but Jesuitism remains the stance that makes a theology of liberation possible. There are no liberation theologians in Opus Dei nor can there be any, because Opus Dei focuses on acts, and classifies human acts as intrinsically virtuous or perverse, without it mattering to them the intention with which they are carried out. Opus Dei professes a legalistic Christianity that has very little Christian in its essence, and is very close to the Pharisaical Judaism that subjects life to the thoroughgoing empire of the Law.

The Jesuit pastoral style allows Pope Francis to address the poorest in a direct and open way: on the island of Lampedusa, visiting the clandestine migrants abandoned to their fate by the State and by most of the Italian left, in Brazil with the people of the favelas, and in Rome itself, by proposing that empty convents take in the undocumented and the homeless. He is understood to have said that “I have never been right-wing”, thereby separating himself from those on the right who brandish Catholicism as a weapon, and placing in a difficult situation those Spanish clerics who act politically hand in hand with the party of the neo-Francoist right. There are those who say that this is merely words and gestures, but words and gestures produce effects. They are already producing them. Bergoglio knows -and says- that a Church that exclusively proclaims a reactionary biopolitical message against women and sexual freedom has its days numbered.

There is a need to abandon the image of confessionals transformed into ‘torture chambers’ and of the sinister paedophile priest and embrace once again the messianic message of the new time. In this sense, Francis as the head of the Church is proving adept at reconciling two characteristics of this longstanding institution that have often stood in opposition: messianism and political capacity. They are two characteristics that the left always claimed for itself and that it has now abandoned in the name of realism and ideological intransigence. Let us hope to learn something from the current teaching of the Church by getting rid of the equivalent of the paedophile priests and the Pharisees, those sinister bureaucrats, the sad reciters of dogma, and those sadder still who praise sanguinary despots as champions of liberty.


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Fine Gael, the Seanad, and the lingering death of democracy


I’ve been thinking about the Fine Gael image in support of Seanad abolition that shows a picture of Bjorn Borg celebrating. Borg demanded its withdrawal. The argument -if you can call it that- made by the image is that Sweden abolished its senate, therefore Ireland ought to do the same.

This is in keeping with claims made by the Fine Gael campaign team that imply some sort of best practice for the composition of political institutions in nation states. And the suggestion draws on the rather positive image Scandinavian countries enjoy in Ireland, on account of their relatively ample welfare state provisions, decent standards of living, and compelling TV dramas.

You can nearly hear the chains clanking in Fine Gael strategists’ brains: against the accusations that we, a party with a fascist past, are out to do away with democracy, we will illustrate that we are not, by showing that our proposals bring us into line with countries with a more progressive reputation. Sure, don’t the trade union beards and TASC and all be banging on about Scandinavia all the time?

Such approaches rely on an assurance that the people they are seeking to influence do not know a great deal about Sweden, or any other country with half-decent public services. Because in so far as such countries prove better places to live in than Ireland for the majority of society -and they are by no means perfect-, this is down to high levels of public ownership, highly progressive taxation, strong labour legislation, greater social equality and a far greater degree of social solidarity: all of this won, by the way, through militant labour struggles.

That is, the substantive basis for ‘happiness’ in Sweden has little to do with the formal structure of its political institutions, and a great deal to do with the material constitution of society.

Hence the arrogant cynicism of Fine Gael’s appeal to Scandinavian standards: Enda Kenny’s government is pursuing policies that tear up what meagre welfare state provision there is, strip away and run down public services with a view to outsourcing and privatisation, and usher even greater social inequality, deprivation and poverty.

But the party strongly suggests, in its images referring to Sweden and Denmark, that the abolition of the Seanad will, of itself, put Ireland on the road to social democracy. Naturally, the Labour Party has nothing to say about this.

The abolition of the Seanad referendum is just a gimmick to convey an illusion of popular sovereignty. With another vicious budget, it is intended to confer an aura of democratic legitimacy on a government destroying lives and wrecking futures in order to keep the financial system ticking over.

Fine Gael couldn’t give a toss whether there’s a second chamber or not, as long as they get away with keeping the rabble safely away from the things that matter.

And this is reflected in the image, which says “the proles know nothing about Sweden, but they probably have a vague sense that the Swedes are a great bunch of lads. Who do we get to make them think we’re at their level – Abba? The Swedish chef from the Muppets? Wait- I’ve got it..”

The arrogance, the contempt, the paucity of argument, are stark indeed.

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‘Tiresome name-calling’: neoliberalism and its malcontents

Dan O’Brien has an article in today’s Irish Times titled ‘Ireland ill-served as President becomes increasingly partisan and political’, in which he criticises Irish President Michael D. Higgins’s recent speech ‘Toward an ethical economy’ for its ‘tiresome name-calling of the reactionary left’, which is to say, its use of the term ‘neoliberal’. My response is below. For previous comments on Dan O’Brien’s treatment of neoliberalism, see here and here. For a note on why I write such comments, see here.

It’s a shame John Waters isn’t reading Dan O’Brien’s article online. If he were, he’d be able to click on the link to the speech supplied at the end of this piece and weigh up whether O’Brien’s ‘detailed critique’ stands up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, newsprint shows a steely indifference to mouse clicks. In his previous article on neoliberalism, in which he also described ‘neoliberal’ as a term of abuse, Dan O’Brien prescribed ‘reason and evidence’ as the triumphant antidote to those seeking to close down debate through ‘name-calling’. I would therefore recommend that the lurking mob present click on the speech itself and apply reason and evidence before drawing their own conclusions.

It is worth noting the omissions from Higgins’s ‘intellectual company’: Durkheim, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Adam Smith and Aristotle. None of them would fall under the category of ‘firm left-winger’ that O’Brien applies to the other individuals quoted. (None of them is Irish either, a fact that would appear to trouble Dan O’Brien).

In the speech, Higgins counsels ‘a reflection on economic issues in a way that respects the thread of discourse, even if we are to disagree’. And his speech counterposes the intellectual thought and hugely influential political project of Mises, Hayek and Milton Friedman with what other thinkers –not all of whom are left-wing, contrary to the claims made by O’Brien- have to say about the relation between economic thought and society. This is an honest intellectual exercise. However, for those consumed with the notion that how you ought to be classified is more important than the ideas you express, this is clearly anathema.

What Dan O’Brien seems anxious to deny is the idea that neoliberalism is a legitimate name for a social and historical phenomenon. As a consequence, he avoids the substance of the speech altogether and erects a straw man: Michael D Higgins is abusively slapping labels on people in pursuit of a political agenda.

I think he should take a good hard look in the mirror.

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New Adventures in Trollsplaining in the End Times


About a year and a half ago I decided to embark on an experiment, albeit one without a hypothesis. It had been weighing on my mind for some time that Ireland’s major media outlets were –are- playing a decisive role in normalising the discourse relating to the politics of the ongoing bailout. This role is going largely uncontested, day to day, which is not to deny the importance of the various impressive periodicals getting produced.

I don’t have a great deal of time to devote, in my own writing, to analyse and synthesise matters of interest with the amount of detail I might like. At best I can grab a half an hour here, half an hour there, every other day. Ideally I would like to devote more time to it. For the moment, that isn’t feasible.

What was feasible, I thought, was some kind of exercise in undermining the formation of opinion. Nothing major: just the odd grain of sand in the vaseline. For a while I’ve been fascinated by the idea that comment threads on news sites are barometers of general opinion. I don’t know if they adequately reflect anything. But I regularly hear people say: don’t read the comments, they’re depressing, or something similar, as if this were indicative of a broad trend.

And indeed, the comments usually are depressing, at least from the point of view of someone interested in seeing the world not go further down the toilet under neoliberal technocracy. A lot of the time they make for terrible reading too. However, I think it is clear that people do read them, in order to gauge what others at large are thinking.

I also think they read them in order to figure out what to make of the kind of ideas expressed in the article itself. We don’t live in a society where there is open discussion of radical political ideas. In Ireland you could live for decades without ever hearing ideas relating to (say) socialism and its history discussed in anything other than the crudest of caricatures. Socialism, according to the dominant discourse, is something that we all thought was a good idea at one point, but it was tried in Cuba and didn’t work, and we have all grown up and moved on.

So I started to post comments around different websites, the Irish Times in particular, also The Journal, and occasionally a couple of others. But as well as posting the comments there, I’d share them on Facebook, Twitter and this blog. I tried to write them in such a way that they could make sense as standalone pieces: so that you didn’t have to read the article to make sense of the comment.

When writing them I would also try and be as politely adversarial as possible, without coming across immediately as a troll. There was an element of trolling to it though; I had no interest in getting involved in a debate with any of the other commenters. What interested me, on the whole, was trying to undermine the premises of the piece itself. To use a sporting analogy, as far as I could, I tried to get in with a crunching challenge early doors.

The thinking behind this was that when someone reads the comments it has a bearing on their perception of the content of the piece, and that an encounter with a radically dissenting opinion, cogently expressed, prevents the normalised discourse from taking hold. I think this is especially true when you have a piece founded on some truth held to be self-evident -for instance that the budget deficit has to be cut in line with Troika guidance- and the next thing you see is someone talking about how wonderful or sensible it is, or haranguing about how it doesn’t go anywhere far enough in targeting the unemployed, or public servants.

From trial and error over the years I have found that a crunching two-footed tackle, rhetorically speaking, really does have an effect on the flow of the commentary, but there is no point engaging 150-200 comments in. Either do it early, or do it whenever it has all died down and your contribution will sit just below the line.

All the time I was doing this, I was ambivalent about my undertaking. I don’t like the idea of generating revenue for private enterprises that don’t pay me anything and on the whole help to bolster neoliberal rule. So in keeping with the stipulations of the Irish Times website, I didn’t link to the comment I had left on any of the other sites where I posted it. And I tried, where possible, to write things that demonstrated the specific ideological function of the publication in question.

Then there is also the ambivalence generated by the way online interaction is represented by the same institutions that want you to take part in their ‘conversation’, their ‘community’, their gladiatorial contest, fray, whatever. If you look at the Irish Times website, there is a picture illustrating their comments facility: a man in a suit standing alone atop a craggy promontory, apparently bellowing into a loudhailer, with no audience in sight. It is not the sort of thing to get involved in if you are out to burnish your self-image.

At no point did I expect or desire it, but to the best of my knowledge I didn’t receive a single reply from any of the authors of the pieces I was critiquing. This is despite the fact that I tried to make my contributions address some aspect of the substance of the text, i.e. to take seriously what was being said. Ludicrous as some of John Waters’s columns are, I think he was onto something last week when he said candidly that he did not write for online readers, and certainly not online commenters, whom he described as ‘the lurking mob’, but rather for those who read the printed paper  (conveniently, the latter do not make a habit of answering back). That attitude extends well beyond the aqueous one’s own columns.

In fact, over the course of writing, online anonymity, pseudonymity and traceability became the focus of media attention. The phenomenon of ‘cyberbullying’ was regularly conflated with ‘the lurking mob’ of pseudonymous online political commentary, such that writing a pseudonym, in the eyes of some, made you a danger to society at large.

I continued to use the Twitter handle ‘hiredknave’, which certain people on occasion interpreted as a form of vulgar abuse, rather than an obscure reference to William Blake. It isn’t that I need to protect myself from anything, though I do think the possibility of anonymous and pseudonymous writing is vital for democratic discussion. It is rather because I think my own name is irrelevant to the matter under discussion.

So I think there is a tendency to minimise the importance and the substance of online comments on such sites, and to simultaneously present them as a danger to democracy, or the work of self-aggrandising maniacs, or as ‘little wankers [tautologously?] masturbating in a room and hiding behind the computer’ (Eoghan Harris), or as in thrall to pathetic delusion.

There’s a danger of mistaking any sort of online political discussion with effective political activity. I was at a discussion a few months back where a few left-wing people seemed quite pleased about the fact that Facebook provided the possibility for the discussion of ideas with an intensity, frequency and range that would have seemed unthinkable a couple of decades back. Yes, but does it make any difference? I am always sceptical –well, contemptuous- of the idea that access to means of self-expression in and of itself leads to consciousness raising or substantial political change. And I also think that platforms under the ownership and control of major corporations have obvious limitations, and not just on account of possibilities for surveillance. Nonetheless, I don’t think that these spaces, especially those immediately accessible by large parts of the general public, should be left uncontested.  Perhaps an army of trollsplainers is required for, at least as an interim measure.

Anyway, here’s a list of the Irish Times comments, with the name of the author of the piece commented and a brief description of what the comment is about. It’s not a comprehensive list of all the comments as I didn’t publish them all on this blog. However I will trawl through Facebook and add more to the list in time.

16/09/2013 Stephen Collins  –  Fine Gael: the enemies of ordinary people – Link

13/09/2013 John Waters – Internet and its discontents – Link

13/09/2013 Dan O’Brien – The role of the OECD – Link

13/09/2013 Alex White – Seanad abolition – Link

07/08/2013 Kitty Holland (report) – The Mater Hospital and abortions – Link

02/08/2013 Dan O’Brien – Economic Management Council – Link

31/07/2013 Assorted Fine Gael TDs – Progressivity vs Fairness Link

19/07/2013 David Farrell – Political reform and the destruction of democracy – Link

17/07/2013 Jennifer O’Connell – Stay-at-home dads – Link

27/06/2013 Peter Cunningham -Anglo Irish Bank and the Taxpayer as Idiot – Link

25/06/2013 Philip Lane – Obeying the feral hogs of the markets – Link

25/06/2013 Donal Donovan and Antoin Murphy  -Blame for the economic crisis –  Link

20/06/2013 Richard Pine – Public service broadcasting and market forces  – Link

14/06/2013 Stephen Collins -Potemkin facades and support for the political system – Link

12/06/2013 Dan O’Brien – Neoliberalism (2) – Link

12/06/2013 Dan O’Brien – Neoliberalism (1) – Link

05/06/2013 Bernadette Segol and David Begg – Trade unions and democracy – Link

04/06/2013 Fintan O’Toole – The citizens and the public – Link

01/06/2013 Patrick Smyth – Sovereignty – Link

01/06/2013 Gordon Jeyes – Childcare, austerity and the State – Link

31/05/2013 Dan O’Brien – Economics and the ruling class perspective – Link

23/05/2013 Pascal Donohoe – Seanad abolition – Link

13/05/2013 Kingsley Aikins – Diasporas and State racism – Link

10/05/2013 John Waters – Marxism and anti-communism – Link

09/05/2013 Donal Donovan – Austerity and social destruction – Link

04/05/2013 Stephen Collins – Democracy and professional politics – Link

03/05/2013 John Waters – Abortion and patriarchy – Link

03/05/2013 Noel Curran – RTÉ and the public interest – Link

30/04/2013 Ann Marie Hourihane – Irish health care and abortion – Link

23/04/2013 Dr Chris Hayden – Thatcher’s death and moral decency – Link

12/04/2013 Dan O’Brien, Judith Crosbie – The Fiscal Advisory Council and Thatcher’s legacy – Link

12/04/2013 Clara Fischer – Thatcher and feminism – Link

03/04/2013 Vincent Browne – Capitalism vs democracy – Link

03/04/2013 Harry McGee – The Troika and health care – Link

02/04/2013 Fintan O’Toole – Direct Democracy Ireland and the Labour Party – Link

28/03/2013 Laura Slattery – RTÉ star salaries and rugged individualism – Link

28/03/2013 John Bruton – Blaming Germany – or not – Link

22/03/2013 John O’Hagan – Marketplace diktats and democracy – Link

21/03/2013 Stephen Collins – Politics and the Serious People – Link

21/03/2013 Aodhan Ó Riordáin – Private schools and democracy – Link

21/03/2013 Author unavailable – Hugo Chávez and the Irish regime – Link

03/03/2013 Stephen Collins – The Fairytale of Irish democracy – Link

26/02/2013 Fintan O’Toole – Democracy and repression – Link

21/02/2013 Author unavailable – Food, state violence and deprivation – Link

16/02/2013 Stephen Collins – The Magdalen Laundries and the Troika Party – Link

16/02/2013 Editorial – Deployment of Irish forces to Mali alongside British forces – Link

16/02/2013 John Bruton – Real democratic freedoms and abortion – Link

21/12/2012 Editorial – Public vs private health care – Link

06/12/2012 Editorial – Spreading the pain’ of the budget – Link

26/11/2012 Editorial – Children Referendum turnout – Link

08/11/2012 Editorial – Enda Kenny and impressing Germans – Link

04/10/2012 Editorial – Hugo Chávez, neoliberalism and Ireland – Link

14/09/2012 John O’Hagan – Economic sovereignty – Link

08/08/2012 Editorial – Austerity and social solidarity – Link

07/08/2012 Fintan O’Toole – Loyalty to the State – Link

04/08/2012 Editorial – Solidarity between states – Link

24/07/2012 Canon Stephen Neill – Trusting public representatives – Link

23/07/2012 Stephen Collins – Political correspondents and framing – Link

25/06/2012 Stephen Collins – Moderates vs extremists – Link

18/06/2012 Stephen Collins – Politics – ‘Insiders’ vs the frivolous mob – Link


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The Enemies of Ordinary People

I left this comment on Stephen Collins’s article in Saturday’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘Signs of Coalition losing nerve as winning post looms’

So Labour’s ‘real achievement’, according to Stephen Collins, has been to minimise the impact of the bailout on ordinary people.

Regardless of whether or not this is even true, the logical corollary here is more to the point: the majority party in coalition and in government, Fine Gael, wants to impoverish ordinary people with its economic policies. And, just to emphasise the point, the bailout in itself is not a bailout of ordinary people but their subjection to the power of finance capital, through the destruction of living standards, the shrivelling of the welfare state, the shift from direct to indirect taxation and the imposition of thoroughly regressive taxes and charges, and so on. Fine Gael sees all these things as good sense, precisely because -as Stephen Collins reveals- they are the enemies of ordinary people.

Stephen Collins, as is his wont, pours scorn on unspecified voices of protest from outside the political establishment whilst urging those in power to continue their policies attacking ordinary people. For people on the ‘hard left’ to oppose Labour’s entering government is, to him, pathological, rather than sustained by any reasoned political analysis. Whereas following the anti-democratic logic of austerity is, for him (and, no doubt, most of the people he corresponds with), the only game in town.

Well, one reason for opposing Labour’s entry to government is the fact that the party’s history -if not its present- is bound up with the broader struggle of working class people to build what James Connolly referred as ‘the sovereignty of labour’ – the removal of political and social inequality and its replacement by social democracy (which is not at all the same thing as the election of a nominally social democratic party), the rule of ordinary working people.

The entire thrust of the bailout is in completely the opposite direction, but the participation of the Labour Party in government serves to obscure this and to lend the impression that there is no need to build forces of democratic struggle. But there is. And the more potent they become, the greater the demonisation and contempt will be from the pen of establishment scribes.

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The Quixotic Grandiloquence of the Empty Vessel

I left this comment on John Waters’s latest article, which is about how the internet is bad.

There are a couple of interesting observations made in this article by John Waters, though I won’t detain myself with what there is of a central argument. One is that writing online is different to writing in print. Another is the antagonistic quality of writing online.

Writing for a readership that does not answer back has to have its benefits. There is no-one there to tell you that you’re wrong, or treat your opinion with contempt. The text that you have helped produce does not get juxtaposed with other text that diminishes the effect of your own work, which is what happens when your work is published online on a page where other people can add their responses. I think John Waters is right to say that the latter arrangement serves to shape the way people write, both above and below the line. (But we are only really talking about news sites here. This is only a very small, if still influential, area of the wild and dangerous world of ‘online’.)

Above the line, it is more difficult to make extravagant and sweeping claims for the purposes of aesthetic effect (and also for the purposes of telling porky pies), because you know someone will pull you up on them. Below the line, there is, I think, an antagonistic quality to many of the contributions. Some of it is bad writing. There are excesses. Some people are clearly idiots. But I fail to see this as a bad thing. The opinions and analysis published on Irish newspaper sites largely emanate from elite sectors of society, and they are often written in a fug of self-importance, with a sense that everything that is being said is already self-evident. I think that deserves to be challenged. That’s why I leave comments here, anyway.

I don’t think people ought to be humiliated. However, when their writing turns into a project of quixotic self-aggrandisement, voicing grandiloquent contempt for ‘the mob’ and intending to elevate the writer to the status of the solitary hero, the only one prepared to think brave thoughts, well, they do deserve to have their bubble burst.

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Irish Times in Neoliberal dogma endorsement shock horror probe

I left this comment on Dan O’Brien’s ‘Exasperation in OECD at snail’s pace of reform’, in today’s Irish Times, in which the author comments on the Irish State’s failure to introduce changes to its job creation schemes.

One good way of boosting employment would be to stop cuts to public spending. Apparently it’s big in Japan. Another way would be to increase social protection rates.

Did the ‘exasperation’ of OECD boffins, as discerned by Dan O’Brien, extend to addressing such matters?

Well, sort of. It said that ‘Higher aggregate demand and job creation are essential’ for bringing down unemployment.

However, its proposed ‘rebalancing of the economy’ and ‘strategic agenda to reinvigorate growth’ amounted to a continuation of current austerity policies, with a call for more cuts to public spending, and more ‘structural reforms’ to welfare provision.

On unemployment, it said that there needed to be a ‘careful and granular’ review of ‘interactions between taxes and benefits’ to ‘make work pay more vis-à-vis benefit receipt’.

Now, there are two ways you can make work pay more vis-à-vis benefit receipt.

You can make work pay more, or you can make benefit receipt pay less. The OECD doesn’t explicitly state which option it prefers. However, given that one of the intended effects of cuts to public expenditure is to drive wages down across the economy, I think we can hazard a guess.

Anyway, the point here is that the OECD’s recommendations are bog standard neo-liberal dogma, with a patina of humanising concern normally absent from the more hard-nosed Troika approach.

It makes its proposals about reform to public institutions and job creation schemes safe in the knowledge that the overall reshaping of European society –the liquidation of labour rights and the shrivelling of the welfare state- is continuing according to plan, regardless of the consequences for democracy.

And the Irish Times cites them as yet another cadre of knowledgeable experts who have lots of righteous things to say about what needs to be done in Ireland in terms of reform. Can anyone figure out why?

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Yes to abolishing the Seanad, Yes to overthrowing the government

I left this comment on the article by Labour Party TD Alex White in today’s Irish Times, titled ‘No plausible case made for a second chamber’, in which he argues for the abolition of the Seanad because there is no reason for a second chamber to exist in the Irish context.

I think there is something to be said for the existence of a <i>first</i> chamber, one ‘whose members are accountable to the people’, and which must ‘have the final say when it comes to making laws and raising taxes’, as Alex White describes it here.

However, no such chamber exists. When it comes to making laws and raising taxes, the final say in Irish politics goes to a variety of actors: the German parliament, the European Commission, the IMF, the European Central Bank, the bond markets. So yes, a chamber where the people decided would be a welcome development, and something of a turn up for the books.

So what about the Dáil, then? Does it ‘add value’ –to use Alex White’s clunky phrase from the language of commerce and profit- to democracy?

Alex White suggests the Dáil –as the ‘House of Representatives’ represents the interests of the people. You could put it another way: the Dáil decides on what the people’s interests are.

Oddly enough, the people’s interests and those of finance capital seem to be coinciding a lot of late, if laws and taxation policy are anything to go by.

He also suggests that the Dáil is accountable to the electorate. But if you voted against social welfare cuts and bank and bondholder bailouts at the last election, the individuals who reneged on their promises and sailed off into the sunset with a fat pension will not be held to account: at best, they just won’t get voted for again. It may be painful for them, but soothed by some succulent consultancy contract, in many cases. And anyway, the Cabinet is not accountable to the Dáil, and the Economic Management Council is not accountable to the Cabinet.

If you wanted a case study of how not to do democratic accountability, you couldn’t go wrong with Ireland. But even though the idea to abolish the Seanad emerges from the desire of a professional political caste to sustain an illusion that it operates in the interests of the same people who are the victims of its policies, I find the idea of the Seanad as some sort of bulwark against tyrannical power, expressed in the comments here, so ridiculous that it makes me want to puke with laughter.

Yes to abolishing the Seanad, but Yes also to overthrowing the government and installing democracy.

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