Perhaps the most famous remarks about utopia come from Oscar Wilde, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. They come at the end of a passage where he says that civilisation – ‘our property system and our system of competition’- depends on slavery. Culture and contemplation, the making and beholding of beautiful things by country gentlemen, requires other men to do all the ‘ugly, horrible, uninteresting work’. Wilde says that machines should do all the dirty and degrading work, and they should be the property of all, not the select few.
He then imagines some of the practical details of such a society:
There will be great storages of force for every city, and for every house if required, and this force man will convert into heat, light, or motion, according to his needs.
In other words, electrification. He then asks:
Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
Unlike many of his Victorian contemporaries, Wilde does not see civilisation and progress as the same thing. For him, the advance of civilisation is by no means the advance of Humanity, since civilisation depends on slavery: in contemporary terms, on capitalist exploitation. For him, envisaging utopias is a practical affair, one that is concerned with imagining how human needs might be best met. Without the initial image of the kind of society towards which we can strive, we are enshrouded in the darkness of civilisation.
These days, the work of imagining how human needs might best be met is a matter for experts, whose models of how society works and policy prescriptions are untroubled by the matter of ugly, horrible, uninteresting work.
Not because such work has disappeared, mind you. It’s just that if people are engaged in such work, it’s because they are assumed to have made the rational choice to do so. There is no need for Humanity to come into it any more, since society’s priorities are self-evident: balanced budgets, a good business climate, and an entrepreneurial culture.
In the Dáil session on the life and work of Seamus Heaney, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, in a thoughtful reflection on the relation between politics and poetry in Heaney’s work, claimed, in reference to From The Republic of Conscience, that Heaney was a utopian.
Whether this is true of Heaney’s poetry on the whole I wouldn’t be able to say. But it does seems true of From The Republic of Conscience, and in the terms Wilde sets out for utopian thinking. One point of contrast is that whereas Wilde is seeking to envision the future, Heaney is retrieving what is already there. There is nothing in Heaney’s poem that doesn’t already exist as part of lived human experience.
Trying to fish out deliberate allusions is something of a mug’s game. Nonetheless I think there’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between the traveller from Shelley’s Ozymandias and the travelling narrator of Heaney’s poem.
In Ozymandias, the transience of political tyranny is glimpsed, but only at a remove of distance and time, and through the eyes of a traveller ‘from an antique land’, whose only encounter with the ruled is through the act of beholding the sculpture and interpreting the sculptor’s intent in representing the tyrant’s gaze, and whose words are then related by the narrator. In From The Republic of Conscience, however, the narrator speaks unmediated, giving an account of the living people he encountered there, who gazed into his face. If this is a utopia, it is one at which we have already arrived, and from which we can always set sail.
In response to Boyd Barrett’s reflection on Heaney’s utopianism, Ruairi Quinn interrupted, with something of a sneer:
Unlike you, comrade, he lived in the real world.
Could the poem’s line about public leaders weeping to atone for their presumption to hold office, which Ruairi Quinn had read aloud minutes previous, have weighed any lighter on his conscience? The answer is: yes, it could.
Half an hour or so later, Ruairi Quinn spoke about the fact that teachers in the ASTI union had voted No to the Haddington Road proposals. He said:
All of this represents a major impact on ASTI members relative to other teachers. The decision by ASTI to remain outside the Haddington Road agreement and to withdraw from existing commitments means that the protections and benefits of the agreement, including those in regard to security of tenure, are not available to its members. This will be a matter of concern to many teachers and underlines the strong case for reconsideration by ASTI of the situation.
The blunt message to the teachers behind the refined words of the Labour Party minister is clear enough.
It was a bad idea for you to vote No, because now you will lose your job if we see fit, so think again.
In issuing the threat, Quinn was taking advantage of the situation created by the introduction of the Financial Emergency Measures In The Public Interest Act 2013. After the introduction of this Act, unions, including teaching unions, were compelled to sign up to the government’s terms or suffer a unilateral cut to pay and conditions.
To call what happened at Haddington Road an ‘agreement’, as nearly everyone does, is an blatant instance of newspeak that masks the underlying violence. Imagine I turn up at your house and say, I will burn you out of your home unless you hand over the keys of your car. Then, when you hand over the keys, I declare -and you declare- that we have reached an agreement. This was the same dynamic operating in Haddington Road: either you sign up to this, or we impoverish you even further.
If you read the Act itself, it becomes clear that the ‘Public Interest’ cited has nothing to do with the Irish public, but with the meeting of conditions required by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Sweden and the Kingdom of Denmark.
The destruction of labour rights enacted by the legislation is not a side effect of the legislation, but an intended consequence. The public ceases to exist as an autonomous body with a democratic form, and is wholly usurped by the capitalist class and its technocrat lieutentants. Education systems are conclusively subordinated to exchange value. This in keeping with the grand vision for Europe shared by people like Mario Draghi and Jean Claude Trichet. And Ruairi Quinn. This, comrade, is the real world.
In May 2010, Ruairi Quinn took to the airwaves of the public broadcaster in support of the Greek bailout. He denounced the “savage demonstrations” that were taking place in Greece in response to the plans to dismantle and sell off Greece’s public services. He told the Irish public of the “far left anarchist movement within Greece”, and lauded the “extraordinary support” that the PASOK government, headed by George Papandreou, was enjoying, with “massive support from the Greek citizens right across the political spectrum”.
The lessons for Ireland were clear, he said.
“Instead of learning to behave like Germans we continued to act like Italians, or should I say Greeks. And that discipline has to be learnt.”
Three and a half years later, the policies implemented in Greece have led to full-blown social catastrophe. PASOK as a political party is a colossal wreck, Papandreou ejected from government after humiliation by the Troika when he tried to give proceedings a democratic gloss via a referendum. Which shows you how trustworthy Ruairi Quinn’s analysis is, and how much you should trust him to take education policy decisions in the best interests of your children.
Ireland, by comparison, has fared slightly better in terms of economic indicators. But that is not saying much about a country with a political establishment committed to the logic of neoliberalism, and precious little by way of an emancipatory discourse that might act as a brake to the destruction of what is public, including the very idea of the public itself.
That emancipatory discourse will certainly not come from the Labour Party, whose JobBridge scheme has effectively abolished real jobs. Under what Quinn describes as the ‘public private partnership’ arrangement, schools are free to contract qualified teachers to teach in schools, but at dole wages. Under the new regime, teaching in a school full time as a qualified teacher is no longer a job, but merely a bridge to a job.
It’s hard to say just what the full scale effect of such an arrangement might be, on schools and the wider communities of which schools are a part, other than that it will be demoralising for teachers and destructive of the social fabric. But this is the real world, comrade, where any aggression against teachers on the part of government ministers is gladly seized on by a right wing media apparatus with a major stake in the privatisation of education and a steady supply of reactionaries to whip up resentment, as we have seen in recent days.
Seamus Heaney thought teaching was a real job. On reflection, perhaps he didn’t live in the real world after all. The real world, comrade, is the Republic of Confiscation.