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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