Monthly Archives: November 2013

À la carte


I left this comment on John Waters’s article in today’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘Politics needs a new force, and Lucinda has the ability and insight to provide it‘. The Lucinda in question is Lucinda Creighton, the former Fine Gael Government Minister who resigned her post over the introduction of abortion legislation, and who is now being widely touted as the spearhead of a new right-wing political party because apparently Capital needs a new right-wing political party in Ireland.

‘If you’d ask me what the most critical political intervention this week was, never mind the last three years, I’d say it was Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium, in which he denounced ‘the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless’ and ‘ ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation’.

What with John Waters being the kind of columnist who pays attention to what the Pope says, I’d have half expected him to mention this. Certainly there has been no mention of Lucinda Creighton in the worldwide press. In light of this, isn’t it a bit strange that John Waters should be hailing someone whom he himself describes as an ‘advocate of orthodox laissez-faire economics’ as Ireland’s new political saviour? It’s as if he were some sort of à la carte Catholic.’

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Ruairi Quinn: Negative Nationalist


Returning to the TV3 documentary on Sinn Féin the other night. Among the first figures to appear on screen, during the introductory scenes, delivering an assessment of the party, was the present Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn. He made his pronouncements to the backdrop of an Irish tricolour and a European Union flag, a sign of official gravitas accorded by the documentary makers.

It’s worth scrutinising his pronouncement. At the very least, a person who bears overall public responsibility for education should be measured against basic standards of truth. He said, of Sinn Féin, that they “have a negative nationalism. They define their Irishness in relation to how much they hate the Brits.” This remark was replayed later on in the documentary.

Is it true that Sinn Féin as a whole defines its Irishness in such terms? In a word, no. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of the past few decades will know that Sinn Féin’s concern is with the British State exercising jurisdiction in Ireland. If anti-British hatred were indeed the yardstick of Irishness that Sinn Féin uses, it wouldn’t be participating in government in Northern Ireland. Its party representatives wouldn’t be taking part in official Remembrance services. It wouldn’t be supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Its leaders wouldn’t be shaking hands with the Queen.

Ruairí Quinn’s remarks in the programme don’t distinguish between “the Brits” as a common colloquial name for the security forces of the British State and British people as a whole. It seems fair to assume he didn’t intend any such distinction, since nationalism purely as a mere negation of military force doesn’t make much sense. Rather, he’s suggesting that ‘hating the Brits’ is motivated by racist atavism, and this relates to British people as a whole.

Let’s concede that you’ll find a degree of resentment, suspicion and animosity towards British people in certain areas of the North and in the South too. The fact that this is the case doesn’t lend any more truth to Quinn’s pronouncement. Northern Ireland is the scene of a conflict, one in which the British State exercised brute violence to subdue the population. In areas where republicanism is strong, there is no shortage of experiences of brutal behaviour by British forces. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that such violence might have generated anti-British sentiment among certain people, just as IRA violence might have generated anti-Irish sentiment among other people. That doesn’t mean Sinn Féin “hates the Brits”.

In fact, there’s so much easily accessible evidence that Sinn Féin on the whole does not “hate the Brits” by any reasonable standard that it’s degrading to have to provide examples. One conceivable justification for such a claim, I suppose, would be to identify the British army and the British government as indistinguishable from the entirety of British society, and therefore any kind or resistance or opposition to the rule of the former ought to be interpreted as racism. By this token, the entire history of resistance in Ireland to British rule was racist. In fact, the entire history of resistance to domination by a foreign power anywhere could be construed as racist.

Another conceivable justification would be to identify each and every manifestation of atavistic anti-British sentiment expressed by a Sinn Féin supporter as characteristic of Sinn Féin as a whole. One might also argue, based on such logic, that since the Irish Labour Party has one or two supporters strongly committed to socialism, it is a party with a strong commitment to socialism.

I’m not concerned here with defending Sinn Féin’s reputation. Rather, it’s a question of the ease with Irish establishment figures can tell outright falsehoods about that party, and more broadly about contemporary Irish republicanism, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be held to account for their fantastical claims.

In this light, the other part of Quinn’s claim -that Sinn Féin has a “negative nationalism”- is worth thinking about. This suggests that there are forms of nationalism that are not negative, which is to say, self-made nationalisms that do not define themselves in opposition to what they are not, but rather will themselves into existence by their own bootstraps, such that there is no “them”; only “us”. Suffice to say that historically, indeed there are forms of nationalism that make claims for themselves as merely positive and tending towards the abolition of all negativity. I’ll refrain from confirming Godwin’s Law here by providing an example.

Certainly, the Irish nationalism espoused by the founder of Ruairi Quinn’s party, James Connolly, was unquestionably a ‘negative’ nationalism, in so far as it defined itself by what it was not. This is encapsulated in the famous apothegm that

“The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour.”

That is, Irish national liberation and liberation from capitalism and its orientation toward self-seeking greed are inseparable.

Connolly elaborates:

“They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.”

If it’s difficult to argue that Sinn Féin stands for the abolition of capitalism implicit in Connolly’s vision, it’s simply impossible to do the same for the Irish Labour Party, which has enacted one anti-labour measure after another in ‘the national interest’, and which, as part of the Socialist International, is an ally of plenty of parties which, when in government, have perpetrated not only structural adjustment plans, but massacres.

And it isn’t just impossible, but utterly ludicrous, to argue that Ruairi Quinn -a steadfast supporter of austerity across the European periphery- is a figure who stands opposed to capitalism.


Let’s give Quinn his due, however: as an enthusiastic supporter of the European Union of capitalist member states, he does embody a particular kind of nationalism that stands in contrast to other forms of Irish nationalism. But contrary to the impression he seeks to convey, his is also a negative nationalism: one that pits the life interests of the Irish nation (as conceived by the ruling powers) against the interests of Europe’s working class, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg. Including, of course, Ireland’s working class.

And for a political representative of such a nationalism, it comes with the territory that the socialist and internationalist dimensions of Irish republicanism have to be kept hidden from view, until they are extinguished altogether. As Freud biographer Ernest Jones would have it, it is not the people we hate the most that we want to kill, but those who arouse in us the most unbearable conflict.

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Ransom Notes


Don’t know about you, but it feels like I’ve heard the word ‘ransom’ more times this last few days than in the last three years.

The context for this revival of the word ‘ransom’ is the ESB dispute between workers and bosses at ESB over a €1.6bn pension shortfall.

The Irish Independent, whose main shareholders are billionaires Denis O’Brien and Dermot Desmond, ran a headline the other day that read ‘Held to ransom as ESB unions get set for strike‘. Today’s Irish Examiner has published a letter headed ‘Country mustn’t be held to ransom by ESB‘. The letter writer ends with the words ‘Go, army go!‘.

Contrast this renewed acquaintance with the word this last few days with the past few years, in which Ireland had to introduce huge cuts to public expenditure, with many vital services withdrawn, subject to rolling conditionalities imposed by the Troika. This was the consequence of the government bailing out Irish banks to the tune of €65 billion in order to protect an economic model based on property speculation.

If the government did not meet with Troika conditionalities, funding for public services would be cut off, and the consequences for the Irish public would have been immediately catastrophic. That was the point of all those quarterly reviews chronicled so solicitously by the Irish Independent, the Irish Times and RTE, in which the Men from the Troika appeared as the stern taskmasters bringing an unruly government to heel (in reality the outlook of the taskmasters and the government was largely the same).

Well, if threatening to pull the plug on public services and welfare payments every three months -unless the government continues to drive down wages and living standards and privatise public services- isn’t holding the country to ransom, what is?

The reason none of Ireland’s media establishment characterised the Troika as holding the country to ransom is quite simple. For all these institutions, the rule of money is proper order. Finance, by their lights, is not there to serve: finance is there to rule. As the Pope -yes, the Pope- puts it: ‘A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.’

So the current revival of ‘holding the country to ransom’ can be explained in quite simple terms, really. Ireland’s newspapers and radio and TV stations are, by and large, the chief messengers of the new tyranny, this system that ‘tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits’. In this case, it is ESB workers, and hence they must be savaged and devoured by Ireland’s media.

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The Idiots of RTÉ


Originally, an idiot referred to those persons who paid not the slightest attention to what was taking place in the public arena. Instead, an idiot confined himself to his own private affairs.

This evening, on the main TV news programme on RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster, the programme’s anchorman Bryan Dobson referred to people carrying placards as “idiots”. They were standing behind a person being interviewed in the street.


The interview being conducted was between Bryan Dobson himself, and an economist who specialises in property prices.

The placard related to proceedings in the Dáil this evening. A motion was being voted on. The content of the motion was to ask the European Central Bank to destroy €25 billion in sovereign bonds issued in February of this year in lieu of the remaining Promissory Notes, plus the €3.06bn bond also being held by Central Bank of Ireland, payment for the 2012 Promissory Note; further, to cease any and all interest payments currently being made on those bonds.

That is, the placard was a denunciation of the socialisation of private bank debt: socialism for the rich, the destruction of public services for the poor. The people standing in the background were seeking to draw the attention of the wider public to an issue that has major consequences for Ireland’s social fabric.

The interview was about property prices. The economist was talking about how prices in Dublin had gone up, or something.

Nearly everyone knows that the Irish media obsession with property prices, and its failure to question a social model in which people land themselves in massive debt in order to put a roof over their heads, was one of the factors in Ireland’s property bubble, which then burst, with disastrous consequences.

RTE, the public broadcaster, was steeped in this activity. Economists attached to banks and insurance companies, with a vested interest in fuelling a property price boom, were treated as oracles of Olympian objectivity and scientific rigour. The same economists still feature on RTE programming. RTE never questioned the golden calf of house price speculation. It treated property developers like modern princes. When one of its star presenters, Joe Duffy, made a documentary on James Connolly, the person he asked to give an assessment of Connolly was Harry Crosbie, property developer friend to the stars, who delivered a resounding approval of capitalism and its red in tooth and claw nature.

For the entire course of the bailout, RTE, the public broadcaster, has never questioned the legitimacy of rule by Troika. It has never questioned the tens of billions in public money getting shovelled the direction of unsecured bondholders. It has presented cuts to education and health and the imposition of regressive property taxes and water charges to privatisation of public goods as self-evident necessities.

Turn on any RTE news programme, any time. Listen to the questions they ask. When it relates to finance, or business, or public services, the vast majority of questions are geared towards the priorities of the rich: are the cuts deep enough? Will the targets be met? How are investors going to respond? Aren’t you better off doing something, instead of being home on the dole? When it relates to the victims of the rule of finance, they send Paddy O’Gorman off on human safari. When it comes to political conflict, no utterance is of any consequence unless it emanates from Leinster House.

All of this means that RTE’s news and current affairs programming is not concerned with serving an informed citizenry to arrive at decisions about political life. Rather, it is concerned with serving the rich, and turning everyone else, in both the classical sense of the term and the everyday sense, into idiots. Depoliticised and uninformed, anaesthetised and ignorant, ponying up for their TV license at pain of prosecution in order to hear propaganda on why they should be robbed once again.

Bryan Dobson’s outburst against a group of active citizens with the public interest at heart simply expressed all this in a nutshell.


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I Like The Pope (Does The Pope Smoke Dope?)


The Pope has a new document out. In it, he attacks the ‘economy of exclusion’, the ‘new idolatry of money’, a ‘financial system that rules rather than serves’, and ‘the inequality that spawns violence’. In political terms, this places him way to the left of Ireland’s political establishment, and turns John Bruton into Mr Fascist Potato Head, which is what he is.

The phenomenon of fascism is usually understood, from a critical standpoint, as a production internal to capitalism. The usual way of looking at things has it that Irish society was subject to the domination and abuses of a religious empire but it is now a freer and more prosperous society after shucking off the oppressive grip of the Church, even if some problems remain. Well, what if this way of looking at things is wrong? What if the punitive and abusive Church was an interior production of Ireland’s political economy, and, when there was no longer any need for it, once there was no danger that communism might take hold since people had sufficiently internalised capitalist values, its overt coercive power and influence and its centrality to social life became surplus to requirements?

I’m not suggesting the Church has left the scene in Ireland. On the contrary: many of Ireland’s private schools are run by religious orders. Most of its schools are owned by the Catholic Church. Hospitals that receive public funding are owned by Catholic religious orders. The founders of private hospitals are the patrons of Catholic think-tanks that enjoy substantial prominence in media as representative of practising Catholics. Public broadcasting still transmits the Angelus at 12 and 6pm every day. A few years ago, the Vatican produced a weird slab of glory to recognise the contribution from a group of very wealthy Irish people in Irish society to the upkeep of its art collection. These were people who got rich on the back of a property bubble and the privatisation of public assets. See here:


What you no longer get is the moral policing function, the intrusion into matters of extra-marital sex and contraception. You might say abortion is an exception to this, a demonstration of the Church’s continued power. I think it depends what you mean by the Church. True, Ireland still has draconian abortion laws, and there is still trenchant opposition to affording women anything that might approximate any kind of bodily autonomy when it comes to going through pregnancy and childbirth. But is this opposition to abortion actually Catholic? It’s true that many of the most prominent voices in favour of maintaining Ireland’s prohibition on abortion, from the Taoiseach to clergy to the spokespersons for campaign groups profess a Catholic faith. But there is also deep opposition to abortion in the North of Ireland among various Protestant denominations, and this isn’t down to obedience to teaching from Rome.

‘Get your rosaries off my ovaries’ is a frequent slogan you see among pro choice campaigners. What I’m wondering is whether this kind of social oppression is best recognised in terms of religious symbols and practices. Are the religious symbols and practices not just there to provide a cover and a justification for oppression?


To use an obvious example: the figure of the crucified Christ is, historically, a symbol of witness in the face of political oppression and torture. Giles Fraser says that the ‘cross spoke of Roman power in just the way Black Hawk helicopters speak today of US power.’ But it can also be turned into a symbol of domination and oppression. After the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s forces, who had defeated the Republican side with the aid of Hitler and Mussolini, created the Valley of the Fallen, a monument featuring a 500ft high cross, built with the slave labour of the losing side. As is often noted, for every political opponent murdered by Mussolini, Franco murdered 10,000. What this tells us is there may be nothing inherently oppressive or emancipatory about this or that religious symbol or text or rite, but that their interpretation, and the actions arising from that interpretation, are part of a broader struggle among contending social forces.

It makes sense for any ruling power to appropriate the symbols and language of its subjects, all the better to strengthen ideological domination. Wolves dress up as grandmothers. It is hard to think of a more trenchant artistic opponent of Empire than William Blake. But his communist utopian poem Jerusalem was appropriated, first as a hymn to celebrate British imperial expansion in Palestine, and then, at the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton, as a celebration of monarchy and the master race. Or even the Irish Tricolour, once a symbol associated primarily with the labour and women’s movements in Ireland, now the backdrop that confers gravitas on any number of anti-labour and anti-women politicians. Add your own example, if you like. Such ideological domination is one of the key themes in the Gospels. That hasn’t prevented the New Testament being used for all kind of nefarious forms of ideological domination. One egregious example would be the teaching that the Jews killed Jesus.

Which brings me back to the Pope’s new publication. You might say that there’s nothing contained in the document that was not already in Catholic teaching. You could be right, I’ve no idea. But there are particular emphases that should be of interest even to people who have no intention of getting washed in the blood of the lamb. Let me give an example. The Pope restates Church teaching on abortion, but in the following terms:

we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, ‘abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty’.

So what, says you. The fact he recognises the reasons why a woman might want an abortion doesn’t bring the Church any closer to respecting bodily autonomy for women. Well, not exactly. But he does recognise factors in a woman wanting to get an abortion. The interesting part is that he emphasises, elsewhere in the document, that these factors are social factors:

‘The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed’


‘as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. …Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.’

So, to be plain, if you are opposed to abortion because it is the taking of human life, for the very same reason you must also be opposed to exclusion and inequality, because ‘such an economy kills’. Given the fact that many of the most prominent anti-abortion advocates in Ireland are also free marketeers, the Pope is recognising the responsibility of such people in forcing women into circumstances where they feel compelled to seek an abortion.

The Reinvention of Nearly Everything?

I think this is quite a positive development. The Pope himself thinks that all those Fine Gael backbenchers and right wing Catholics who emoted so forcefully about the sacredness of human life, but who also defend ‘ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation’, the ‘new tyranny’, are compelling women to seek abortions, on account of the unequal society they are creating.


Why is the Pope saying such things? Are there ulterior motives involved? Is he trying to rebrand a thoroughly irredeemable institution? My answer to all these things is: who cares? I’m speculating here, but I think that given the fact Jorge Bergoglio is from Latin America and is therefore sensitive to the strength of popular left-wing social movements and governments there, and also the fact that these movements and governments are not at all hostile to religion (Hugo Chávez, for instance, frequently cited his Christian faith and famously called Jesus ‘the first socialist’), has some bearing on the forcefulness of the critique of capitalism.

And in so far as he is saying such things, I say: good! Only an idiot would think that approving of what the Pope is saying amounts to defence of an absolute monarchy that marginalises women and in many places helps secure the domination of the rich. Only an idiot would think approving of such things means you want the Pope as a spearhead for a global movement against capitalism.

The fact the Pope is saying such things with such emphasis are signs of genuine cracks in the global capitalist system. The question is how to open them up even further. In Ireland, where many people’s moral imagination -even those who are no longer religious- is still shaped by the teachings of an Irish Catholic Church that on the whole has always sucked up to the rich and oppressed on their behalf, I say the Pope’s stated anti-capitalism should be put to good use.

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TV3: Who Dat?


In 1995, the Hole In The Wall Gang, a comedy group that found a niche within Northern Ireland’s dreadful hands-across-the-barricades culture industry, sent up the use of grim atmospheric music in programmes about the North. In their film Two Ceasefires and a Wedding, a characteristically gritty Northern scene scored with stark minor key legato music pans out to reveal the image of a woman seated on a lorry playing the music on a synthesiser.

Though it was a recognisable cliché 18 years ago in Northern Ireland, such gloomy hums remain as fresh as an infant’s dirty nappy for broadcasters in the Republic of Ireland when it comes to representing the Northern conflict and figures in it. I have often noticed how televised images on the struggle for civil rights in the North in the late 1960s are set to reflective and faintly sinister tones, as if to suggest that the minds of the people taking part were in tune with some age-old dirge that accompanied conflict in Ireland since time immemorial. I would like to imagine that at least some of the young people taking part had access to the popular sounds of the day. But rarely would you see the scenes of RUC men beating the crap of protesters to the tune of Gimme Shelter, a frequent accompaniment to scenes of revolt at that time in other places.

A couple of weeks ago on RTE Radio Bernadette McAliskey was interviewed by Miriam O’Callaghan, and she was introduced with audio footage from the Leila Doolan documentary film made about her. Wrenched from the film’s narrative and the flow of images, the tense and ethereal background music had the effect of introducing the guest as a bleak figure, even though, in the campaign speech footage she was talking about her dream that in the future Catholics and Protestants would fight for their rights, “irrespective of who the oppressors and exploiters are”. One can imagine the radically different message had the background music to a speech of hers been, for instance, the contemporaneous and no less appropriate I Want To Take You Higher by Sly & The Family Stone.

Last night on TV3 there was a documentary about Sinn Féin aired. It was titled “Sinn Féin: Who Are They?” Time does not allow me to delve into the multitude of barbarisms that were unleashed upon an unsuspecting viewer by the presenter Ursula Halligan. The entire documentary, which was ostensibly a profile of the Sinn Féin leadership, interspersed with comment from political adversaries and occasional allies, was set to a soundtrack of sinister gloom. Were the subtitles working on my screen I imagine they ought to have read ‘sinister legato double bass music plays’ then ‘sinister staccato cello music plays’. Throughout the whole. damn. thing.

The basic premise of the programme was to probe Sinn Féin’s suitability for political office in the Republic of Ireland in light of the party’s growing popularity south of the Border and its history and role in the violent conflict in the North of Ireland. I’m not a supporter of Sinn Féin and have never voted for them, nor at any point, from a perspective that was a great deal closer and more immediate than that of most people watching the programme, did I see any justification overall for the Provisional IRA campaign. Nonetheless I have to say that the gall and the stupidity of this programme in the way it presented Sinn Féin and the wider conflict in the North were nothing short of outrageous.

If it were just a matter of the grossly manipulative mood music, I might have had nothing to say. But the programme went a great deal further than that. Against the ‘They’ from ‘Who Are They?’ the programme presupposed a ‘We’ of principled opposition to and abhorrence of ‘violence’. There was no distinction drawn between State violence and paramilitary violence, or the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed, and the relation between the two in the context of the Northern conflict.

Figures from the political establishment such as Ruairi Quinn and Alan Shatter, who have no problem with State violence when unleashed by the State of Israel against Palestinians, or in imposing the structural violence of austerity policies, were invited to pontificate, to a stately backdrop, in the most ludicrous terms about the horrors inflicted in the North. In a bizarre statement of ignorance, Republican Sinn Féin was called the “latest in a long line of splinter groups”, as if no other splinter groups had emerged in the past 30 years. Sinn Féin itself was described as a “party of protest”, which is a strange term for a party that is actually part of the government in Northern Ireland. But sure up there doesn’t count.

A sequence of statistics was introduced in the midst of the programme, under the heading of ‘The Troubles’. The lists of dead and injured did not bother distinguish between the victims of violence from Republican groups and those who were victims of British State and loyalist paramilitary violence, thereby lending the impression that Sinn Féin was in fact the fons et origo of the Northern conflict. Seen in the light of recent revelations about direct British State involvement in the sectarian murders of dozens of Catholics, the complete effacement from the scene of any hint of oppression on the part of British forces was an insult both to the victims of these murders and other atrocities, and to the intelligence of the public.

Particularly dreadful, I thought, was Ursula Halligan’s description of Martin McGuinness as “a man without much of an education who became Education Minister”. Regardless of what you think about Martin McGuinness personally, the remark was redolent of the grossest unionist condescension towards working class people in the North. In the case of Martin McGuinness, as was the case with most working class men of his age at that time, he was consigned to the educational scrapheap at age 11 on account of an education system that was intended to reproduce class inequality and to divide society into those who would administer and lead, and those who would be administered to and led. Whatever education he did obtain was clearly sufficient to the task of Education Minister. Such a remark says more about the intellectual calibre of political correspondents than it does about any child who failed the iniquitous 11 plus exam, which McGuinness rightly sought to abolish.

As ever, the North only appears in the purview of the southern media establishment in order to mobilise the bogey of “the men of violence”, and to present a gloomy tableau of what happens whenever there is protest and dissent. Such appearances are calibrated to the maintenance of rule in a one policy State dedicated to the violence of the hidden hand of the market, or, when it sets fly from Shannon Airport or rampages against protestors in Rossport, the violence of the hidden fist.


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The Other Gates of Hell


I learned yesterday that Bill Gates was a bondholder in Anglo Irish Bank, Irish Nationwide Building Society, Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Bank when these banks received their parts of a €64bn bailout, paid for by the Irish public, at the expense of their health, education, social security, pay, working conditions and jobs, among other things.

I learned today that Bill Gates is funding projects to make the condom of the future, apparently made out of graphene (I have no idea what this is) and beef tendons, which are made out of cows.

In truth, Bill Gates is so loaded he probably didn’t even know he was a bondholder with Irish banks. The Internet says he does know about the condoms, though.

The reason I am mentioning this is because I don’t know how many times I’ve come across items in defence of capitalism that mercilessly mock the caprices of regimes and their leaders that claim not to be capitalist, irrespective of the story being true or not.

So you will hear about Kim Jong-Il wanting to start a lobster farm in space while his people are suffering (or whatever). And this is intended to prove that socialism is wrong everywhere forever.

Can you imagine how the Western press might report Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro if he decided to close down hospital wards and cut services to people with disabilities in order to fund research into the development of a new kind of butt plug?

We would hear no end of disquisitions on the madcap ego-tripping and callous disregard for human needs that such a decision entailed. It would be held up as an example of why socialism will fail, because human nature is what it is and only markets can assure the full development of human capacities.

The thing is, the case of Bill Gates is a vivid illustration of how capitalist regimes and markets operate with precisely the same de haut en bas contempt for the masses that is often attributed by the regime media and educational apparatus to socialists, and of how they operate absurd and inhuman priorities in resource allocation.

They cannot look after their banks, goes the system’s logic, and this is why Bill Gates is taking their money off them, to make new types of condom instead of letting them keep hospital wards open. The beauty of the free market, right there.

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The Translation Constituency


For the last few months I have been working intermittently -with a very large ‘inter’ and very small ‘mitts’- on translating a long essay by Spain-based writer and comrade Jónatham F. Moriche. It traces the history of Spain’s political institutions through the widely admired Transition from dictatorship to democracy, from the starting point of the assassination, in Madrid in 1981, of Yolanda González, a student activist in the Socialist Workers Party. It addresses the continuity between the dictatorship’s apparatus of fear, and the social order that emerged after Franco’s death. It is well worth a read.

Unfortunately I haven’t finished it yet.

I was saying to the author a couple of weeks back that I would have it ready for him the following day. I had translated the vast bulk of the text. What I didn’t bear in mind at the time was the fact that I hadn’t actually read my translation.

When I read back through it, there were many points of style, phrasing and vocabulary that I wasn’t happy with. A lot of the time in shorter translations I’d just say DFR, but when they accumulate over a long piece, and so many of them, it can turn something unreadable altogether.

If this is starting to sound like a Why I Have Not Yet Done This Given I Have No Dog To Eat It excuse, it’s because that is indeed what it is.

But I’ll have it done soon, Jónatham. In the meantime, there was one part of the translation that had left me in a degree of doubt, and for reasons interesting enough that I feel I should share here.

Here is the translated paragraph in question.

“Eduardo Haro Tecglen wrote regarding the planned anti-terrorist legislation presented by the government at the beginning of 1978, this is, in the midst of the process of drafting the constitution:

‘Surveillance of telephone conversations, opening up of mail, lengthening periods of preventative detention periods… [..] If all this were carried out, a form of the so often feared “destabilisation” of democracy will already have been achieved, and it will be the government, which claims its fundamental goal is to achieve democracy, that has established it.’

Now, in the original, ‘process of drafting the constitution’ appears as ‘proceso constituyente‘.

On other occasions I’ve translated this literally as ‘constituent process‘. But it sounds strange to my ears. In English, the word ‘constituent’, in relation to politics, is a noun predominantly to do with parliamentary representation. It’s a synonym for a voter or elector, but it isn’t quite the same thing as ‘voter’ or ‘elector’, albeit one with a crucial difference.

In the context of parliamentary representation, you can be a constituent without doing anything except breathe. In some cases, you can be a constituent even after you are done with the whole breathing business. So in this context I am James Reilly’s constituent, for instance, even though I would sooner gasp my last than vote for him.

Somewhere (I can’t remember where), Raymond Williams mentions that Tory MPs in the UK often talk about ‘my constituents’ in a proprietary sense, just as they might also talk about ‘my footmen’.

Irish TDs talk about ‘my constituents’ a lot. Whether this is a continuation of a venerated Tory tradition, or something else, I have no idea. What I do know is that parliamentarians frequently stand up in Ireland’s parliament and hold forth on behalf of people who haven’t even gone through the formal nicety of putting a cross in a box beside the parliamentarian’s name. ‘My constituents’, then, might be another way of saying ‘my little people’.

As an adjective, ‘constituent’ in English has a particular historical significance in terms of the constituent assembly, that is, a body concerned with the drafting of a new constitution. In Ireland there is presently a ‘Constitutional Convention’, which is similar to a constituent assembly in form, but not in content, since the content is highly circumscribed.

Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the thought that the whole point of Ireland’s Constitutional Convention is to forestall anybody coming up with any funny business about constituent assembiles and the French Revolution, not least because the latter led to the introduction of guillotines as a form of justice.

With all this in mind, I asked near-omniglot translator Élise Hendrick her opinion on ‘proceso constituyente’, whose series providing a historical and political background to the recent Chilean elections I highly recommend. She recommended ‘process of drafting the constitution’, which is what I’m sticking with.

We discussed the fact that ‘constituent’ as a noun carries such heavy connotations of passivity, when there is no particular reason for this. As she said, it could also mean the person who puts something together: ‘Dr Frankenstein was the monster’s constituent’.

A more conventional meaning of ‘constituent’ is ‘constituent part’. That is, if you are a constituent, you are part of a whole. In political terms, what does being part of a whole mean?

In Hobbesian terms, which is how the Irish political system works, it means being part of the People, which entails giving up your own rights in the service of the absolute right of the sovereign, which is supposedly the parliament but usually the Cabinet and even then it’s only the Economic Management Council and even then….you get the picture. You only have to be alive to be a constituent, and occasionally even this requirement can be waived.

It isn’t hard to see this mode of constituency at work in Irish politics. If you need an abortion, your right to one may depend on the decision of the supposedly sovereign parliament. This, at the time of deliberation and decision, may be composed mainly by relatively wealthy men who are drunk.

In Hobbesian terms, there is no reason why a rich man who has been drinking heavily is not the best person to deliberate on the reproductive rights of his poor female constituents, and women more generally.

There’s an additional problem, however, with using ‘constituent process’ as a translation for ‘proceso constituyente‘.

Although Jónatham uses it to refer to the time when a constitution was being drafted, a ‘constituent process’ need not entail the elaboration of a written constitution.

If you look at this piece by Esther Vivas, translated into English, on Catalonia’s Procés Constituent, there is no mention of a written constitution as such. Rather, the point of the Procés Constituent is ‘to create social consciousness, to mobilize, to promote civil disobedience and to raise a political alternative that defies those who monopolize power’. It exists  ‘to construct a new politico-social instrument’, not to write a constitution.

To compound things, the idea of a ‘constituent process’ in English can also exist in opposition to a ‘destituent process’. See, for instance, this interview with Michael Hardt:

How could we imagine this developing into more constituent forms of democracy? Do we need to go beyond the assemblies that are currently at the heart of the protests?

Yes, eventually one would have to go beyond the assemblies as they are practiced in occupied squares – even though, as I said, all these democratic experiments in organizing are themselves very important.

Opening a constituent process in this context has at least two sides to it. First of all, it is a recognition that the Constitution (and indeed all of the supposedly democratic constitutions) is not a sufficient basis for a really democratic society. As I said earlier, the critique and refusal of the representational structure is a powerful lever that could have profound effects. Call this first moment, perhaps, a “deconstituent” or, better, a “destituent” process. Second, and perhaps more importantly, a constituent process has to create a new set of social relations and, in this sense, a new foundation for democracy.

In these terms, a constituent does the exact opposite to what is normally expected of a constituent in representative democracy. She is the active political subject of real democracy, whereas the constituent in liberal representative democracy need only have a pulse, and even then, arrangements can be made.

I’ll round off by saying that Ireland -by contrast with Greece and Spain- is as far away from a destituent moment as ever it was. Maybe there needs to be a better translation for destituent.

What is interesting, I think, is how Ireland has not had a 15-M or a Syntagma Square, but at the very same time as those two events were underway, it had a privately-funded simulacrum of a constituent moment – We The Citizens – which paved the way for two Frankenstein’s monsters of liberal representative democracy: the toothless Constitutional Convention, and the right-wing populist political party Direct Democracy Ireland, which promises to ‘return power to you’ whilst making the Constitution an object of crazed fetish.

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So many questions.

Look at this screenshot. It comes from the Irish Times website this morning.


How do you think about things when it comes to politics? Is everything connected, or do you have separate mental deparments for organising your perceptions of reality? Do you look at the link to the story on smoking and drinking, and file it under ‘Department of Health’ (or ‘Department of Social Protection’)? Do you look at the link to the story on British soldiers shooting to kill in Belfast and file it under ‘Department of The Past (incorporating Department of The North)’? Do you look at the link to the story of blacklisted Irish builders in Britain and file it under ‘Department of Internal British Affairs concerning Worker Discipline’?

Or does everything blur together? Does the health system have anything to do with State violence? Do bullets fired by the British Army in Ireland have anything to do with the decades of abuse endured by Irish builders in Britain? How do smoking and drinking influence emigration? Is there any link between abuse and intimidation of workers and abuse of alcohol? Does the phrase ‘top-up’ have anything to do with alcohol consumption? (How do you top-up someone whose glass is flowing over? How big a glass do these people need?) Is there any link between top ups for top jobs and net emigration? Does alcohol have anything to do with State violence? What is the effect of bullets fired in Belfast on the health system in Dublin?

‘So many reports./So many questions.’ That’s how Bertolt Brecht ends his poem Questions from a Worker Who Reads. There are lots of questions that could be asked, but aren’t. And there are lots more that are actively discouraged.

In his poem, Brecht summons the names of great men and civilisations, and exposes how their myth takes wing at the expense of toiling multitudes. We could say something similar about that fetish object known as ‘the economy’. An economy is nothing without the labour of the producers: those who farm, cook, clean, build, teach, design, calculate, give birth, raise children. An economy can recover on the basis of more suffering and more exploitation, if need be.

But if you look at a news site or listen to a broadcast, the prospect of suffering and exploitation is either airbrushed out or tarted up as selfless and noble sacrifice. Through ‘the economy’, the greater good can be equated to the eternal demand for more suffering, more exploitation, more sacrifice.  There are lots of people who elevate themselves to a higher plane of rationality by ridiculing those who believe in God. Many of the same people will tell you that economic growth is always a good thing, regardless of conditions for those who produce. Toiling harder and longer because God is Great is seen as delusional slave morality, but toiling harder and longer because it helps economic recovery is seen as doing one’s bit for society.

“Educate! Agitate! Organise!” is a slogan I encounter at least once a day, usually without reference to any particular detail about who is going to educate whom, who is going to agitate whom or what, and what particular kind of organisation is needed.

But what if people have already been educated? What if they’ve been educated to see the economy as the primary object of social concern?

What if there is already  agitation? What if the agitation is directed against forms of social co-operation and ownership because -apparently- they destroy individual freedom and risk economic catastrophe? What if the agitation is directed against politics as such?

What if they’ve already been organised? What if the organisational forms are: self-seeking entrepreneur; struggling debtor; passive constituent?

When we think and talk about politics, about life in common, the first step is often to organise issues in our mind in terms of the State institution competent to deal with them. The broadcasters and journals we rely on to interpret and order reality for us help organise these things for us. We then end up elaborating lots of little views focusing on the narrow and particular, and blotting out the possibility of any kind of broader, more radical critique that goes beyond mere denunciation or one-solutionism. This way of seeing is the way the State sees and organises things. Isn’t there a need to dis-organise before we shout “Organise!”

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Buried at the Bright Side of the Road


An Attorney General isn’t the kind of figure given to wild-eyed flights of fancy in public.

People appointed to such roles aren’t appointed for their rebellious tendencies, but precisely because they can be relied upon to articulate the position of a substantial portion of the legal establishment.

So the suggestions circulating that John Larkin, the current Attorney General in Northern Ireland, might be going on a solo run with his remarks about ending prosecutions in relation to the Northern Ireland conflict pre-1998, are verging on fantasy.

In reality, the remarks are likely the product of long discussions with other people in Northern Ireland’s legal and political establishments, and informed by an awareness that they would provoke some measure of public outrage.

Northern Ireland’s justice system, like most, wasn’t designed to be popular. Sometimes it falls to someone in a position of authority to articulate an unpopular view in order to rein in public expectations in relation to what the justice system can offer.

Stripped of the exaggeration –prospects of conviction don’t “diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year”- the Attorney General’s remarks do express a real practical difficulty with bringing convictions for offences that happened a long time ago (absent a radical overhaul of political and legal structures, which is as likely as a Northern Ireland Mission to Mars).

The problem is that for people who are victims of Northern Ireland’s violent conflict and who want justice and redress, practicality doesn’t come into it, and local political representatives are mindful of this.

If you look at today’s newspapers you will find reports detailing the responses of victims. There will be a scrupulous distinction in the reporting between people who were victims of Irish Republican violence on the one hand, and people who were victims of British State violence, either in its overt or covert form, on the other.

This distinction points in the direction of the problem: there are different kinds of victim. I don’t mean to suggest that the suffering of someone whose relative was killed by an IRA bomb is qualitatively different from that of someone whose relative was shot by a British soldier. But there are a range of motives, beyond the common basic motives of finding out the truth and seeing some sort of retribution or redress, for people seeking prosecution. These different motives have to do with political orientation vis-à-vis the State, and they take shape as sources of real conflict at the level of political representation.

One example would be someone who thinks their RUC officer relative was engaged in legitimate defence of public order and safety. To end the possibility of prosecution for his killers would mean an indication, from the State he died defending, that he died for nothing, and that the distinction between legitimate State violence and criminal terrorist violence had collapsed into nothing.

Another example would be someone whose relative was shot dead by the British Army and who wants the British State to recognise –to the point that it is prepared to prosecute perpetrators- that the structural injustice that led to their relative’s death in the first instance is being removed.

Reported in today’s Irish Times, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister used a striking analogy to express his perspective:

“Mr Larkin is not advocating amnesty for everyone, only for ‘trouble-related’ crimes; thereby endorsing the terrorist propaganda,” he said. “Murder is murder, is murder. It has no sell-by date. It didn’t have for the Nazis, who have still been pursued. Northern Ireland’s criminals must equally never be relieved of the threat of the long arm of the law catching up with them.”

For Jim Allister QC, the Nazis are the ultimate embodiment of evil, and they serve as a reference point to indicate the moral standards of Irish republican groups, and, by extension, the good embodied by British State forces. For Allister, murder is murder and terrorism is terrorism.

But only up to a point. Allister cites the existence of a hierarchy of victims in Northern Ireland. With the release of the Da Silva report into the murder of Pat Finucane, Allister said his thoughts were ‘with the thousands of victims who will never have any report’ and pointed to ‘the much greater desire to uncover the truth surrounding some cases than others’.

The problem here for Allister (well, it isn’t a problem for him, but it ought to be for anyone who doesn’t wish to live in a fascist State) is that the victims of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British security forces are the victims of precisely the same long arm of the law that Allister so stoutly defends .

What is more, the overwhelming majority of murders perpetrated by Nazis were conducted by forces that laid claim to legal jurisdiction over the territories in which they were operating. Hence the victims of Nazism were also victims of the long arm of the law.

It’s difficult, to say the least, to imagine a new reign of justice in Northern Ireland, in which two diametrically opposing positions –on the one hand, that prior to 1998, the British State had –and has– a legitimate monopoly of the use of physical force, and, on the other, that the British State engineers the murder of its citizens whenever the need arises- can be conclusively reconciled.

How, then, can the post-Good Friday Agreement institutions take proper root if there is a continuous trickle of events that serve, in the context of intensified austerity and privatisation, to undermine whatever legitimacy they do have?

What is more: if, as Anne Cadwallader’s new book shows, collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British State forces was endemic, in what light should we view the loyalist butchery of the early 90s? Did it tilt proceedings in the direction of a ceasefire? How did it serve to determine the scope of what emerged from that ceasefire in terms of political institutions? To put it bluntly: was the Good Friday Agreement built atop the corpses of innocent victims of British State violence?

One way of overcoming this contradiction, these suspicions –in case they jeopardise ruling elites’ visions for a Northern Ireland economic model based on call centres, white elephant tourist attractions, public private partnerships, corporation tax autonomy and property speculation –and remember, all these areas need a properly functioning legal infrastructure!- is simply to wipe the slate clean, and forget about the whole thing.

The unstated logic behind such an approach is that different kinds of victim might object for different reasons, but they’ll shut up eventually, and many of them will be dead soon too. The past will become an embarrassment, and so will they:  a drain on legal and emotional resources in an era when what is needed is not MOPEry but maturity.

For political representatives occupying government, a few victims can come in quite handy when you’re in a tight spot, as Enda Kenny will attest. But as a comprehensive political problem, they can be a seething mass of annoyance.

Overcoming the contradiction would consist of drawing an official line in the sand, such that the pre-GFA period becomes the Dark End of The Street that we don’t talk about any more, and the post-1998, post-GFA order becomes the Bright Side of the Road.

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