Monthly Archives: October 2013

On Political Brand

You may think “well you could have fooled me”, but I put quite a bit of thought into what I write here. I agonise, sometimes for seconds on end, over whether some word is going to turn what was intended as a sturdily crafted block of good sense into a leaky bag of warm shit.

A few years back I read Keywords by Raymond Williams, and a few other books, and I began to realise that words matter.  It isn’t that prior to this point I had been reading washing machine instruction manuals and Raymond Carver short stories with the same kind of satisfaction. What I mean is, when it comes to politics, the words we find to work out a life in common, whether in our own heads or talking with others, have a life and weight and history of their own. They aren’t like slaves who will do your will. It isn’t just that we speak the words, but that the words speak through us.

The most memorable example Raymond Williams uses is underprivileged. I don’t have the book to hand at the minute to quote the exact passage, but his gist is that when you talk about people being underprivileged, you’re making a value judgement in a context where it’s already established that privilege –which literally means ‘private law’- is to the good.

If underprivilege is the name given to the situation of someone who doesn’t have enough food, or is homeless, or unable to read or write, or is deprived medical treatment for a condition, then that also means that food, shelter, education and health are not things all people have a right to because they are basic human needs, but subject to the rule of private property.  Talking about ‘underprivilege’ is entirely consistent with the worldview expressed from the podium at Conservative Party conferences. Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s declared he wanted ‘privilege for all’.

Not everyone who uses the word ‘underprivilege’ intends it to have that kind of connotation, of course: it’s just that our way of thinking about the world is shaped by the ideas of the powerful. Or, in Marxian terms, ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force’.

I was reading an insightful piece by comedian Russell Brand in the New Statesman earlier today. It’s all over the shop – full of arresting images, and vividly expressed ideas that I like and largely agree with. He’s right that the existing political system exists to serve ruling economic elites; that voting is a waste of time; that capitalism’s pursuit of individual interest leads to the destruction of the planet; that the great legacy of left-wing struggles is being dismantled and lots of people don’t notice since they never had any memory of those struggles in the first place; that a socialist revolution is a fundamental necessity; and – that ‘the price of privilege is poverty’.

But at the same time he also talks quite a lot of bollocks, at least by the standards of sensible people who spend a lot of time worrying about what words like ‘underprivilege’ mean. I mean, a ‘Spiritual Revolution’? May Day as ‘a pagan holiday where we acknowledge our essential relationship with our land’?

When he goes on about this stuff it sounds a bit too close for comfort to, well, the Freemen and their mates.

At the risk of coming across as a po-faced English tutor, I think Russell Brand can be a very good writer, but he can be let down by a really scattergun vocabulary. It’s as though he’s not really thinking properly about the words that are coming out. But is this such a bad thing? Am I far too concerned with bringing polymorphously perverse terminology under control? Should I give my own libidinous verbal urges free rein?

There’s another bit in the article where he talks about confusing seriousness with solemnity, and the need for good humour: I agree with this completely, and am totally against the idea that someone who veers into Freeman bollocks (which also confuses seriousness with solemnity, but in a different way) should automatically be consigned to a quarantine of the politically unacceptable.

I also watched Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman. A lot of people have been talking about how eloquent he was in it. To be honest I find some of his rhetorical flourishes a bit annoying, but what I thought was great about the interview was the way he undermined Paxman’s long-marinaded gravitas.

Paxman is a symbol of Britain’s heavily mediated representative democracy. His hard-nosed interrogator persona helps sustain the idea in the public mind that all there is to politics, to democracy, is representation, and that politics is unthinkable without the arcane rituals of parliament, without the voting fetish, without the other televisual personalities known as ‘the politicians’.

It wasn’t so much what Brand had to say –though talking about socialist revolution is always welcome- as the way he responded to Paxman’s establishment auctoritas: not by trying to match it or provide his own version, or pretend, as all those aspiring to political power do, to have all the answers, but by deflating it and subjecting it to ridicule.

There’s an insightful moment in Brand’s interview where he talks about visiting the Houses of Parliament and notices how the fixtures and fittings are the same as the ones you get in Eton and Oxford, and how the symbols are intended to assure certain people that they’re at home there, and others that it isn’t their place. When I heard this bit, though, I began to wonder whether it –the Houses of Parliament- is anyone’s place any more. I mean, it is not as if the Houses of Parliament, the Commons in particular, are a site of democratic deliberation that captivates public attention.

That spectacle –where public debate takes place at the seat of sovereignty- has been largely hollowed out. Fewer and fewer people care any more about what gets said there and more and more people think that anyone who wants to go there is a crook. In this regard, I think the route one approach of socialist revolution, through solemn declarations and a suitable representative vehicle to State power, is doomed to multiple organ failure. The real question is whether new spaces for creating new political possibilities can be established and sustained, bearing in mind that no-one is going to have all the answers to begin with.

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Notes on Contagion

There are of course some important distinctions to be drawn between events surrounding the case of the blond haired girl found by police in a Roma settlement in Farsala in Greece last week, and those of the blond haired Roma children who were removed from their homes in Ireland by Gardai.

Maybe the most important distinction -well, it’s not a distinction but it must be stressed- is that there is no direct relation between the situation of the child in Greece and that of the children in Ireland. The sensationalist media coverage of the Maria case – the ‘blond angel’ supposedly held prisoner by the dark Roma demons – was suffused with racism, and in particular, racist tropes about gypsies who steal the children of white people.

That there might be something remarkable about a blond haired child from a Roma family is, in itself, founded on racist presuppositions. It’s no exaggeration to say that these are precisely the kind of presuppositions that guided Nazi racial science. By such definitions, it’s impossible to have blond haired, blue eyed Roma children. Nazi racial science would classify Roma among the dark races of the earth, whose spreading was cast as a cancerous threat to the noble Nordic Aryan master race of Europe.

When Ireland’s media apparatus became abuzz with the news that a blonde haired child had been removed from a Roma family, the reporting conflated events in both Ireland and Greece in terms of the fact that in both cases it was Roma families involved. That is, in terms of a suspicion on the verge of being confirmed, that it was indeed characteristic of Roma that they abduct blonde haired children.

As we can see now, however, the similarities do not lie in the actions of distinct Roma communities, but rather, in both countries, Greece and Ireland, the propensity of police, media institutions and significant proportions of the population to become enthralled by paranoid racist fantasies, and speculation about what is right and wrong for the State to do, given the sense that such fantasies are real.

So, what common ground is there, in Greece and Ireland, for such fantasies to circulate with such ease? Racist paranoia is nothing new to either country, and the situation in Greece is markedly worse – at the moment. However, the intensification of Troika austerity policies; the destruction of social rights; the dismantling of already meagre welfare states; the failure of political institutions to respond to the material and human needs of the population and the evisceration of any kind of concern with social equality; individualised humiliation, and the resort to nationalistic narratives about recovery, are common to both countries, and are all factors that provide a basis for racism to spread. It must be stressed that the economic policies introduced in both countries have had the effect of increasing inequality and solidifying rigid social hierarchies.

The response of political and media establishments in both countries has been to offer up scapegoats: ‘illegal’ migrants, asylum seekers, ‘welfare tourists’, grotesque and faceless bureaucrats, and so on.

In their responses to the scandal, Ireland’s establishment politicians, from the Taoiseach down, might, if pushed, admit that An Garda Siochána got certain things wrong. But it will be a cold day in hell before they recognise their own role in creating the conditions for such racist abuses to flourish.

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‘Swan-eating’ TDs not doing enough to protect children from ‘asteroid’ – sources


Alan Farrell TD: Swans?

It’s interesting to see this morning just how widespread the conviction is that Ireland’s State institutions are simply impervious to racism in Irish society.

The dominant conception of racism in Ireland is as something emanating from stupid and ignorant people. So in the case of the children taken from their family by the Gardaí, you have people who think that neither An Garda Siochana nor the HSE are at fault, but rather, the authorities had no option but to act when confronted with an alert by the member of the public. It may very well be the case, this argument goes, that the initial alert was founded upon paranoid racist fantasy, but that does not mean that the authorities should have reacted any differently in their investigations.

Let’s confront this argument. If I ring the Gardaí and tell them I suspect the child across the road is going to be hit by an asteroid tonight, will they come out and take the child to a safe place? Highly unlikely, but according to those who say the Gardaí could not have acted any different, the Gardaí would still be obliged to act in this case. After all, the child *could* be hit by an asteroid, so there is no room for discretion on the part of the Gardaí’s part, no room for using knowledge of physics or probability.

It’s only because the Gardaí considered that Roma parents abducting blond haired children is a realistic possibility, despite the complete absence of any evidence to suggest that it is, despite the fact that blond haired Roma children are quite common, despite the fact that even if one Roma family had abducted a child –and there is no evidence to suggest that this has ever happened anywhere- it would be glaringly racist to assume that another Roma family would be likely to do so, and despite the fact that the image of Roma as abductors of children is one long established as part of Europe’s shameful history of racism, that they turned up at the families’ doors.

Let’s use another example. Suppose I ring the Gardaí and tell them I suspect Alan Farrell TD has been eating the swans at Phoenix Park but have absolutely no evidence apart from the fact that he looks like a man capable of eating a swan. How likely is it that the Gardaí will act upon this, and that he will be interviewed? It is very unlikely, because in this case the Gardaí will exercise a degree of good judgment (one which you would hope would also apply if I were to tell them instead about some Chinese man I saw who looks like a man capable of eating a swan, but you can’t be sure).

The point is that no such good judgment applied in these cases because the Gardaí acted –as an institution- informed by racist attitudes vis-à-vis Roma families. The idea that the officers involved acted in “good faith”, as Justice Minister Alan Shatter put it, is besides the point – they operated in “good faith” that wild racist prejudice has a real basis in fact. All the establishment TDs, crime correspondents, former Gardaí and parties sympathetic to the authorities who have taken to the airwaves to claim that there is no evidence of institutional racism in these cases are closing rank and seeking to limit damage to the standing of white Ireland, where racism is only the preserve of ignorant individuals, not the august institutions of State that might be setting up a checkpoint at an airport or an estate near you, to hunt out the ‘welfare tourists’ and other undesirables.

One final point: the notion that a DNA sample is an ideal and appropriate instrument to use in such circumstances, so as to clear up any doubt, is also founded on the same racist prejudice. Does one have to conduct elaborate experiments in order to confirm that a child is unlikely to be hit by an asteroid?

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October 24, 2013 · 9:06 am

Their Republics – And Ours?


The other day I finished writing an article for the upcoming edition of Look Left on the contemporary significance of the Spanish Republic. No doubt you will read the article in due course, but here are some thoughts that occurred to me while writing it but were not included in the article.

Notable by its absence from any of the budget coverage I saw this week was any sort of European dimension to proceedings. Fine Gael successfully presented the budget, with the help of Ireland’s media of course, as the final budget before the departure of the Troika, as the final hurdle before the recovery of sovereignty.

The sovereignty narrative has been quite successful in blocking the emergence of any competing narrative, along the lines of, if you hate the Troika so much, well, you’ll want to get rid of them as soon as possible, won’t you? And if you want to do that, well, here are the steps we have to follow: cut public expenditure, raise taxes, get the budget deficit down.

Such a narrative successfully blocks out other developments as well. One is the dramatically expanded degree of budgetary oversight exercised by central EU institutions over national parliaments. Another development is the set of conditionalities likely attached to the post-Troika bailout phase, which, whilst not as exacting as those contained in the Economic Adjustment Programme, will still be sufficient to ensure that the social vision enshrined in that programme -an even more emaciated welfare state, sustained downward pressure on wages, the disciplining of labour, an intensification of bureaucratic harassment for people dependent on welfare payments, an economy that operates primarily in the benefit of financial institutions- will be fleshed out.

What the narrative of regaining sovereignty has also achieved, this sense of a patriotic struggle, is to hem in political dissent within a national -that is, a 26 county- parliamentary frame, with the population very much on the political periphery of Europe, as well as the geographical periphery.

Anxiety about this peripheral status, this lack of power, is used to reinforce the polity of the ‘small open economy’ as the only horizon in sight. Writing about the French bourgeoisie in 1870, Mikhail Bakunin wrote that

‘I do not say that the bourgeoisie is unpatriotic; on the contrary, patriotism, in the narrowest sense, is its essential virtue. But the bourgeoisie love their country only because, for them, the country, represented by the State, safeguards their economic, political, and social privileges. Any nation withdrawing this protection would be disowned by them. Therefore, for the bourgeoisie, the country is the State. Patriots of the State, they become furious enemies of the masses if the people, tired of sacrificing themselves, of being used as a passive footstool by the government, revolt against it.’

Mutatis mutandis, the ‘recovery of economic sovereignty’, in the contemporary Irish context, can be seen as a narrative intended to secure the economic, political and social privileges of the Irish bourgeoisie. It is intended to reinforce the sense, first of all, that a population subjected to increasing hardship and deprivation is undertaking the necessary steps toward freedom and independence by foregoing health care, education, food, and so on. Secondly, that the government, in organising the affairs of the Irish bourgeoisie -tax breaks for businesses, driving down wages, opening up public services to privatisation, subjecting public servants to market discipline- is acting as the legitimate representative of the entire Irish people, both internally and in relation to the rest of Europe.

The effect of this State Patriotism is to efface class antagonisms altogether: ‘we are all in this together’. In this narrative, Ireland, the Irish State, in the final instance, is nothing but the Irish bourgeoisie and its collective unconscious. Moreover, however much noise Ireland’s trade unions might make about representing the interests of working people, when it comes to Ireland’s relations with the rest of Europe, the collective pronoun their leaders use is the State Patriotic “we” of the Irish bourgeoisie (see, for instance, SIPTU’s analysis of the so-called Fiscal Stability Treaty).

The piece I was writing for Look Left touched on the re-appearance of flags of the Spanish Republic at public demonstrations. One important difference between the flag of the Spanish Republic and the flag of the Irish Republic is that the latter -in spite of its history- is also the flag of the national bourgeoisie, whereas the former functions still as a vivid symbol of popular resistance against ruling class oppression.

The idea of the Spanish republic, its history and symbols, introduce conflict and dissent, a refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the ruling order, or to entertain the idea that the ruling order has as its horizon a society based on equality and solidarity.

In Ireland, however, the ideas, symbols and history of the Irish Republic as an idea have been by and large metabolised by the Irish ruling class. Thus a Labour Party minister can stand up in the national parliament and claim without batting an eyelid that the militant labour leaders of the 1913 Lockout on the one hand, and, on the other, a contemporary political establishment that with the JobBridge scheme has done away with the principle of paid labour altogether, have a shared purpose: jobs.

“With regard to Larkin and the anniversary of 1913, if Larkin were alive today he would want – and this is what the strike in 1913 was about – people to get work where work was closed off to them on the docks and in other employment.”

However ridiculous such words may be, there are debilitating ramifications to the spectacle: popular struggles to re-appropriate the memory of 1913, or 1916, take place in a dynamic that is -whether we like it or not- within the State, and by no means against it.

The danger is that attempts at emancipatory politics in Ireland will remain hemmed into the struggle for political power within the frame of national sovereignty and independence and parliamentary representation, which is precisely how Ireland’s ruling class likes it. As a consequence, Ireland’s peripheral status will be solidified, its population largely cut off from other popular struggles unfolding across the European Union and against the rolling onward of its ruling institutions. It will be as if there was never anything in common worth speaking about.

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The Radical Cynicism of the Irish Labour Party

Some people still look at what religious orders did and contrast their abusive activities with their professed beliefs. There are limits to this kind of critique. Many of them professed such beliefs as a pretext for committing abuses, so holding them to account for their professed beliefs overlooks the radical cynicism involved in the first place. The same applies to the Labour Party.

  • Joan Burton decided that her department did not want to pay child benefit to children of parents working in Ireland, despite the fact that this violated EU norms, and such spending comprised 0.7% of child benefit expenditure.
  • Joan Burton said she would send the Gardai to airports in search of people who might be committing welfare fraud, because welfare spending is subject to the strict limits imposed by EU budgetary norms. Joan Burton claimed that there was €600m welfare fraud. In fact welfare fraud is around €26 million. So Joan Burton exaggerates the degree of fraud in the system by a multiple of 23. The entire level of welfare fraud is equivalent to 2% of the amount of public money paid out in a single payment to unsecured Anglo Irish bondholders on January 25th, 2012.

What this tells us is that Joan Burton does not have any particular commitment to European Union policies, but she does have a commitment to using migrants as a scapegoat for her power lust.

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Turning The Democracy Dial All The Way Up To 11 – A New Beginning for the Old Regime

This is a response to an article in by Vincent P. Martin, who isbarrister and co-founder of New Beginning, an advocacy group founded to campaign for Ireland’s recovery and seeks to find a fair and sustainable solution to the problem of over-indebtedness.His article, titled ‘Our crisis was caused by too little democracy – not by too much’, claims that 2008 and the bank bailout marked ‘the end of effective democracy in Ireland’.

Let’s concede some of what Vincent P. Martin is saying: that the bank bailout is anti-democratic; that Article 5 of the Constitution, which declares that Ireland is a democratic state, has been treated as irrelevant.

It’s arguably true that Ireland was a democracy prior to 2008, but only in narrow and formal terms.

Substantively, however, all the anti-democratic conditions that led to the bank bailout –the institutional imperative of protecting the financial sector at the cost of the health and well-being population; the concentration of immense social power in the hands of private golden circles; a media establishment that presented the worldview of the rich as common sense- had long been in place.

Crucially, the just-so story Vincent P Martin tells here, about how the Dáil worked well in ordinary times, is false.

Firstly because there is no such thing as ordinary times.

Secondly, the State he lauds as ‘surviving the 30 years of troubles in the North’ was one that relied on censorship, religious authoritarianism, a range of carceral institutions – mental hospitals, industrial schools, slave labour laundries- and the spectre of bloody violence spreading from the North, in order to keep the population under control. This same State relied on an outflow of emigrants and their consequent loss of the political franchise as a safety valve for ensuring its longevity.

Whilst Vincent P Martin lauds the Irish State for surviving whilst much of Europe ‘fell to tyranny’, it ought to be stressed that this was not on account of the magnificent traditions of anti-fascism that informed political life in other European countries. In fact, the Irish political and religious establishments were very much in favour of tyranny in Europe, as their support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War showed.

In such a context, we can see why political representatives and other fans of the State might make grandiose claims about how great Ireland’s democracy is, or was.

But the truth of the matter is that the dominant conception of democracy in Ireland is all to do with giving your voice to someone else. The fetish for representation above all else is part of a commitment to an inegalitarian social order.

I agree with Vincent P Martin that people should not be afraid of democracy. But they shouldn’t fall for cut price accounts of it either, such as the one promoted in this article. A New Beginning that calls for a return to the old regime will be anything but.

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A note on contemporary populism in Ireland

During the recent referendum campaign there were a lot of disapproving noises about the ‘populist’ nature of the Fine Gael campaign, the brutally simple and basically anti-politics messages that the abolition of the Seanad would mean fewer politicians and savings for the taxpayer. I think it’s worth giving some thought to the idea of populism in the Irish context, its application, and its consequences.

Perhaps we can draw some sort of distinction between left-wing populism and right-wing populism, if only to clarify the nature of proposal to abolish the Seanad.

Left-wing populism would entail promises or commitments to a more equal distribution of wealth, or greater popular control over economic resources, or legislation that favoured worker’s rights, or the meeting of urgent material needs, singling out an economic and financial elite, bound up with a political elite, as the enemy of the population at large.

Right-wing populism, on the other hand, would also identify an elite as the enemy of the population, but in order to ensure that the existing structure of society remained the same, or was reinforced.

The concern with elites versus democracy contained in Fine Gael’s campaign to abolish the Seanad was nowhere to be found when the Fiscal Treaty Referendum was being debated. The provisions of that Treaty commit to ensuring that the needs of financial elites are met before the human needs of the wider population. It is now more important to pay down your banking debts than to provide resources for fogging down hospital rooms with peroxide, or medical attention for a child with Down syndrome.

It didn’t achieve the desired electoral outcome, but Fine Gael’s approach in pointing the finger at the Seanad for failing to prevent Ireland’s economic crash was consistent with this right-wing populist approach. The destruction of living standards, the price paid by the population in order to keep a parasitical financial sector afloat, was incurred by a load of poncy politicians spouting guff. There is nothing essentially wrong with the system itself.

It bears stressing that the right-wing populist attitude towards the world coincides quite comfortably with the more patrician and the more cerebral attitudes expressed by others in the media and political establishments: in both cases, the fundamental institutions of the economic system, of the capitalist State, are not called into question.

In both cases, a political figure called ‘The People’, which only comes into being at the moment of casting a vote, is called upon in order to sustain the system’s legitimacy. This has some important outworkings. Since it was The People who elected successive Fianna Fáil governments, it is therefore legitimate that The People should bear the burden for the disastrous economic policies pursued, specifically, in the form of private banking debt converted into sovereign debt. What is more, since The People have elected a Fine Gael – Labour government to clean up the mess, the legitimacy of this government is unquestionable. This is a position held not only by the political establishment, but also by the leaders of the trade union movement, and despite the fact that a) the government repeatedly claims that Ireland has lost its sovereignty, which is to say, neither The People nor the government are what the government says it is; b) the incumbent government made a raft of electoral promises when not only did it know full well that it would not be in a position to fulfil them, but both parties committed to the full implementation of the economic programme laid out by the Troika long before the holding of elections and the formation of the government. Faced with objections along these lines, the Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte’s response is quite clear: so what?

One could hardly say it is ‘to its credit’, but there has been a certain consistency shown by the Labour Party in abandoning any kind of explicit commitment to social equality from the language of its election campaign and in subsequently implementing measures specifically intended to increase social inequality: the pursuit of an internal devaluation programme that drives down wages while protecting profits; the transfer of tens of billions in public money to unsecured bondholders; the introduction of regressive taxation measures such as water and property charges; and the reconfiguration of the taxation system away from direct taxation towards indirect taxation measures, a fact wholeheartedly welcomed by High Net Worth Individuals –billionaires and multi-millionaires- and their investment agents.

The whole point of a bailout is to make sure that lenders get their money back, and to minimise, if not eliminate, popular control over the political process. From the point of view of the lenders, and their agents in the IMF and the ECB, Ireland’s bailout programme has been a resounding success in this regard. It is in this context that right-wing populism plays a vital role, by establishing boundaries in public thought about who is to blame and how The People can best be served. This is what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the politics of the ongoing bailout.

Let me give you an example of how this works. This afternoon I was listening to Liveline, the popular RTE radio programme presented by Joe Duffy. There was a discussion about medical cards. In Ireland there is no such thing as universal health care. What has long been taken for granted by in other countries, such as free GP and hospital care for all citizens, has never been available in Ireland. Not even for children. Instead, medical cards are dispensed to those who do not reach a certain income threshold, meaning they can avail of free GP care and other health services. There are plans to cut back on the number of discretionary medical cards –which is to say, cards issued to people who may not fall below the income threshold but who, on account of a chronic condition, require a lot of medical treatment- due to budget constraints imposed by the terms of the Troika programme.

A GP based in Dublin’s north inner city was invited on to speak. He had formerly held a position high up in the Irish Medical Organisation, the representative body for GPs. The doctor gave an eloquent outline of the disaster that awaited as a consequence of cutting the number of discretionary medical cards by half – from 110,000 to 55,000.

When prompted by the presenter about possible solutions, he stressed that the Irish Medical Organisation had long advocated universal health care in line with that available in other countries, including free GP care. He said that this was the most economically and socially effective kind of system, and that the proportion of spending on GP care in Ireland was way below that of the UK: 2% vs 9%.

However, when it came to the matter of where the money ought to come from in order to address the health needs of those people who would be losing their discretionary medical cards, he pointed to the fact that there were many other people in receipt of medical cards who had ample economic resources to cover their health needs. In essence, he was not disputing in any way the legitimacy of the economic programme that led to a restriction on resources available for health care. Rather, he was proposing a practical solution within the parameters imposed by the bailout.

In so doing, and most likely unwittingly so, the doctor was advocating a course of action that was entirely consistent with the recent proposal by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary that free travel and television licenses for the over 65s ought to be removed.  We see similar proposals in the area of child benefit, frequently aired in newspapers and by government backbencher:  parents with lots of money should not get child benefit because they don’t need it.  Such proposals are consistent with a right-wing populist approach: their effect is to destroy the material possibilities for universality and social solidarity whilst pretending to be on the side of the people versus the undeserving elites, and this is what a right-wing populist approach such as the one undertaken by Fine Gael in its Seanad campaign ultimately serves to strengthen.

If the political and media establishment are denouncing ‘populism’, we need to be able to distinguish between political practices that seek to include everyone from the bottom up and throw light on real material antagonisms, and those that invoke The People in the service of powerful elites and the status quo. Pooh-poohing populism tout court will not be enough.

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Come Day – Go Day

This is a contribution of mine to Ireland Unread: Dave Lordan Interviews Seven Irish Authors, from issue 9 of literary magazine Penduline.

John O’Connor’s 1948 novel Come Day-Go Day opens a window on the everyday life of working class families in Armagh whose fortunes are shackled to the declining nearby Mill.

The world of the cramped and frequently flooded homes on the Mill Row is brought to life through the excited sensations and fearful apprehensions of its child protagonists, Neilly and Shemie. Through their eyes, O’Connor’s portrait of the Row residents is alive to the vulnerability and failings that emerge from the pressures of the protagonists’ precarious existence, but unrelenting in his admiration for the verbal creativity and gruff humour through which they cope.

We hear it was St Patrick who built the sphinx-like Mill as punishment for the inhabitants of the Row: “says he, now this’ll be the greatest ould curse of a mill for going on and off”. One who tried to escape the curse was Uncle Pachy, a young man who only got as far as the British Army in India, and has returned, damaged. His gregarious fragility is one of O’Connor’s many triumphs of this short book, a loving engagement with a community threatened with extinction, whose spirit is encapsulated in the fantastical trajectory of the final ‘bullet’ thrown in the breathtaking contest between the Row’s Jim Macklin and the Hammer-man from Belfast: a ferrous nucleus of wonder that refuses to give way against the real.


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The Limits of Charity (and Comment Facilities)

I didn’t leave this comment on the Irish Times this morning because after writing it I found that they have lowered the character limit to around 400 characters. It’s a comment on an article by the president of St Vincent De Paul, Geoff Meagher, imploring the government to bring austerity to an end. 

An article published by the Irish Times, written by the representative of a charitable organisation calling on the government to go easy on the poorer sectors of society is, I suppose, part of the annual window dressing for the budget spectacle, a salve for the conscience of the Irish Times’s target demographic.

Weighed against the forthcoming deluge of atomising features on WHAT THE BUDGET MEANS FOR YOU! AND YOUR FAMILY!, I doubt it will have much of an effect in raising awareness of the socially destructive consequences of the government’s economic policies, which are being pursued with grim tenacity and, of course, presented as a self-evident inevitability by a compliant media.

One of the objectives of the austerity policies presently under implementation, in Ireland, in Britain and in other Eurozone countries, is to do away with the welfare state and social rights that characterised the postwar period in Europe, and leave in its place a regime based on charitable provision and philanthropy: a regime that dignifies the rich, humiliates the regime’s victims, and solidifies a hierarchy based on social inequality, a kind of paternalistic neo-feudalism. I recall a leader article in the Irish Times last year, in the immediate wake of yet another budget that offered up the welfare of the poorest sectors of society in sacrifice to the gods of the Market, sermonising about the importance of charity.

Perhaps it is not a bad thing at all, then, to read the president of St Vincent de Paul citing the words of the 1916 proclamation about equal rights and equal opportunities for citizens. The exaltation of charity in Irish life, and the constitutional provisions that talk about how the State’s social institutions should be informed by charity, run counter to the 1916 proclamation, in which establishment politicians piously affirm their republican faith. The way the State’s politicians profess allegiance to the proclamation of the republic at public ceremonies whilst making Ireland a haven for profiteers and a stop-off point for torturers echoes the hypocrisy of Catholic religious orders beating children senseless whilst wearing a crucifix around their necks.

What we are witnessing now, with the systematic paring back of social rights, the conversion of citizens to mere customers, and the removal of public services in order to protect private profits, is the basic contradiction between the capitalist system -which is based on class exploitation- and the possibility of equal rights and equal opportunities, or of the social solidarity contained in the phrase “cherish all the children of the nation equally”.

When the author says that ‘everyone should be involved’ in the changes needed for a country with social justice at its core, I can only agree. But that means talking about capitalism, and we shouldn’t expect the political establishment or Ireland’s media to facilitate the process.

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The Seanad: A Post-Mortem For The Undead

Before the matter fades into oblivion altogether, some thoughts on the Seanad referendum outcome. I wasn’t expecting a No vote. I really thought that Fine Gael’s focus group-driven right-wing populism was a lot more attuned to broader public sentiment than proved the case.

I thought that the constant stream of propaganda from Ireland’s media outlets over the past number of years, with its unerring capacity for presenting politicians and public officials as the ruling class, combined with the message that there were going to be fewer politicians and hence less of a tax burden created by politicians, regardless of the relatively paltry sums involved, would have raised the hackles of sufficient numbers of homo economicus to guarantee a Yes vote. I was wrong. For starters, because homo economicus may consider a Friday night better spent watching a film and having a few drinks than going to the polling station and voting in something of no great consequence.

It’s hard to discern a dominant tendency in the No vote. Some people wanted to give the government a root up the hole, and not without good reason. Others seemed driven by a sense of foreboding and horror that the august institutions of the Irish State might be swiftly dismantled by a rampaging mob if the Seanad were to fall. Then no doubt there were those who believed a No vote was a No to the Seanad. The fact of different voting trends in the east and west led the outcome to be characterised in the media as an East-West divide, which had the convenient effect of presenting an image of the west as the land of unthinking bogtrotters whose love for the schpuds is second only to their obedience to Enda Kenny, and the east as the domain of gentleman legislators whose love of a sophisticated argument is second only to their loyalty to the State.

It seems unlikely to me that Enda Kenny will sustain any lasting political damage on account of this loss. There are too many people high up in this country, who are counting on the maintenance of order and a good business climate, to allow the Taoiseach’s image to become tarnished in the public eye. Not if they can help it. Hence when the cuts to public services and welfare payments and regressive taxation measures and tax breaks for the capitalist class are introduced with the forthcoming budget, there won’t be any noise from Ireland’s media about the contradiction between Enda Kenny’s anti-elitism as far as the Seanad is concerned and his thoroughgoing pro-elitism in matters of public policy.

Even though Kenny and Fine Gael lost the vote, I don’t think the image of the Seanad, even as a potential space for democratic representation, has been burnished during the campaign. Talk is cheap, but this particular form of talking seems rather expensive: to onlookers, the Seanad is like some weird outsize parakeet on the shoulder of the Dáil’s grotesque and flatulent drunk.

What the campaign solidified, I think, was the prevailing sense that representation, the fact of being represented, is the only legitimate form of politics there is in Ireland’s idiosyncratic political culture. This faith in representation, or on the flipside, the repudiation of political activity altogether, ought to worry people who look on in horror at victory after victory for the forces that Enda Kenny represents. However, many such people seem to be fixated on the idea of the ideal electoral vehicle to come along. But in the absence of some kind of rupture, some kind of refusal of representation, it most certainly won’t.

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