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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