Monthly Archives: November 2013

Freedom of Information – Nothing left to lose?


It was both instructive and helpful of Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan in his column today to explain the recent controversy over Freedom of Information in Ireland, and government hostility to freedom of information, in terms of the British TV series Yes Minister.

Instructive because it illustrates why you have a wide and vocal consensus in Ireland against the default government stance on freedom of information, but no such consensus when it comes to the default government stance on free education, or free healthcare, or universality in public services on the whole. Helpful because it is a much better illustration than I would have otherwise come up with.

Documentary maker Adam Curtis, in The Trap, showed how the writers of Yes Minister were inspired by public choice economics, by the idea that the possibilities for democratic government were limited, because of the self-serving ambitions of politicians and officials exercising immediate control over public institutions. Thus Yes Minister helped to popularise the idea of government as inevitably antagonistic -regardless of the ideological hue of the party in power- to the interests of the public at large and the individualised projects for freedom and wealth that any member of the public might hold.

The popularising of this idea was to prove especially valuable during the Thatcher years and beyond, during which time the neoliberal project sought to dynamite the collective solidarities that had decisively shaped British society through public institutions such as the National Health Service and other nationalised industries. Similarly, on the other side of the Atlantic, ‘big government’ was held aloft by Reagan as the chief enemy of the people.

Precisely because it is concerned with the concentration of decisive social power in the hands of unelected elites who operate above and beyond the political arena, neoliberalism has a thick streak of anti-government populism, intended to foster cynicism and resignation in the population at large when it comes to politics.

The uncritical idea that ‘all politicians are the same’ -when it carries the unspoken corollary that democratic politics is impossible- expresses just the kind of populist sentiment that is prized by neoliberalism: human nature, according to this view of the world, means that we are doomed to be forever ruled by self-serving crooks and liars. The only thing that can be done is to allow this natural propensity for helping oneself at the expense of others to be harnessed for the good of society as a whole.

In Ireland, the crisis of the last five years has produced a remarkable amount of media attention dedicated to the nefarious activities of public institutions, public servants, and especially politicians, and precious little about the economic system and the ruling interests of the society in which they operate.

A great deal of the coverage shares the Yes Minister view of politics: as a game of self-seeking insiders. Public institutions are habitually presented as bureaucratic monstrosities that operate only in the interests of the mandarins and faceless jobsworths who run them.

Public servants -nurses, social workers, civil servants, teachers, and their unions- work to bleed ‘the taxpayer’ -a mythical figure whose view of the world largely coincides with the ideal reader of the Irish Independent- of everything they can get, since deep down, what is happening is a war of all against all.

It is in this context that Freedom of Information takes on particular importance. In a media landscape where immense power and influence rests with offshore billionaires, Freedom of Information legislation is a handy, publicly subsidised means of finding out just how many gilded toilets the rogues in the permanent government are installing, and just how many sick days those greed-fuelled HSE employees are taking off to laugh at the taxpayer’s expense.

None of this is to disparage the excellent work done by many who use FOI requests for the purposes of real investigative journalism, and for informing the public about just what it is public authorities are doing in its name.

Nor is it to suggest that the attempt to end freedom of information de facto is anything other than an outrage. Ireland declares itself a democratic state. At the bare minimum, this means that the demos must know how it is being served by its public institutions, and Freedom of Information is a bare minimum -a minimum- for this to be possible.

We are dealing here, in fact, with a government, and a Labour Party, that shares the Yes Minister view of the world to such an extent that it hires special advisers at exceptional pay rates from the private sector because it cannot trust the conniving bureaucrats of the public sector.

The problem is that the reason the OECD and other neoliberal outfits support Freedom of Information is precisely because the concept of a democratic State -as expressed in the Irish constitution- should be interpreted as minimally as possible.

Therefore, effective control exercised by private powers over public institutions would fall outside such an interpretation of a democratic State. So too would the scope of public institutions -for health, education, welfare, and so on. There is no contradiction per se between liberal Freedom of Information provisions and the commodification of healthcare, or education, or water, or housing, in ways that violate what might otherwise be basic norms of democratic equality. In fact, for certain neoliberal ideologues, that is the whole point.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Translation: On Punishing the Disobedient

This is a translation of a piece by Isaac Rosa published in, 14th November, on the crackdown on democratic protest in Spain. On a related matter, you may also be interested in this fine article by the Provisional University on Spain’s anti-eviction movement.


This is a translation of a piece by Isaac Rosa published in, today, on the crackdown on democratic protest in Spain. On a related matter, you may also be interested in this fine article by the Provisional University on Spain’s anti-eviction movement.

Punishing the disobedient

Patricia, who is from my neighbourhood (Hortaleza, in Madrid), went along to a gathering a couple of years ago to stop the eviction of a family by the Municipal Housing Executive. Several dozen neighbours tried unsuccesfully to prevent the eviction: following the intervention of the Municipal Police, the five members of the family (mother, grandmother, three children) wound up in the street. The neighbours confined themselves to passive resistance, sitting outside the entrance, and were dragged away by the police, as can be seen in this video or this one.

The gathering dissolved, and Patricia returned home, frustrated at not having prevented the eviction, but with no further consequences. But that same afternoon, she was arrested at her home and brought to the police station, where she spent the night. To her surprise, they accused her of attacking authority, of having caused serious injuries to an officer (a broken arm). An investigation full of irregularities began, with neither witnesses nor evidence of the supposed attack. Until today: two years later, Patricia is awaiting a date for her trial. The prosecution service is seeking three years of prison, the judge has set a bail of €8,900, and she only has our solidarity to rely upon.

Patricia’s case is yet more evidence of the harshness the authorities use to punish those who disobey, by seeking an exemplary sanction that will serve to dissuade those who take part in these gatherings. We could also mention Alberto, whose activism in another historic neighbourhood struggle in Madrid, against parking meters, has landed him with a sentence of a year in prison and an insistence that he serve the sentence, despite his state of health [he has a pulmonary embolism – R]. Or the five teachers in Guadalajara for whom four years in prison is being sought following a protest in defence of public education. Or the madness of considering pies thrown at the president of a regional government as an attack on authority that can cost up to nine years in prison. Or that of the incessant persecution of the leaders of the Andalucian Workers’ Union (SAT).

Without the threat of prison, but subject to economic sanctions, one finds hundreds of citizens who in recent years have taken part in demonstrations, acampadas, escraches, surrounding and stopping evictions. They were identified by the Police, and weeks later found a fine or a summons in their letterbox. Disturbance of public order, resistance to authority, unauthorised demonstration: these are terms with which we have already become familiar.

The strategy is obvious, and undisguised: to repress dissidence, however peaceful it might be, and to do so with gratuitous harshness. Whether through a twisting of the Penal Code, or bureau-repression: that form of soft repression that replaces the baton with the pen; instead of splitting your head open, they open up a file for your punishment. That doesn’t mean that beatings disappear though: so you can win a double prize: a blow to the head and a fine.

We might think that repression of dissidence is becoming harsher, but that isn’t entirely true: rather it is extending, widening. Power has always treated those who challenge it with a great deal of harshness. Just ask anti-military activists, those who refused military service, squatters, environmental protesters or the various Basque social collectives classified as terrorists through the theory of the ‘milieu of the milieu’. Since the Transition, whoever breaks with the consensus forms of protest pays dearly.

Today, repression of dissidents, rather than toughening, is spreading. The challenge to power is no longer at the margins, but at the centre of the square. And it has to be cut down by whatever means, laying down thick firewalls before the fire spreads. Since fines and threats of prison are not sufficient, and in many cases the magistrates end up filing away or cancelling the sanctions, the response is to toughen the Penal Code and punish the new forms of protest.

The punishment for disobedience is not just scandalous because it is gratuitous. What is more, it makes the impunity that others enjoy even more evident.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sovereignty Regained


The bailout will soon be over. No longer will Ireland have to be subjected to the interference of external powers in its affairs. No more humiliating conditionalities imposed by mild-mannered Troika functionaries with a stern economic vision. Instead, thanks to the credit facilities supplied by KfW Entwicklungsbank, which is mostly owned by the German federal government, Ireland will become an especially crappy part of Germany.

One thing that the formal exit to the bailout means is that all those official mantras honed at PR firms, about the recovery of economic sovereignty, will have to be discarded.

“Getting sovereignty back” was a highly effective alibi for all kind of social outrages, perpetrated by a government that had to maintain its claim to represent the Irish people while at the very same time enacting policies that destroyed Ireland’s social fabric: shovelling tens of billions in public money in the direction of wealthy bondholders while cutting services for people with disabilities.

However, “getting sovereignty back” is very much a one trick pony. In the coming months, the institutional architecture of the European Union and the priorities of the financial markets will only serve to emphasise who the real Daddy is when it comes to fiscal policy, to say nothing of monetary policy.

Ireland’s media is aflutter with the ramifications of yesterday’s drama in the political arena: was it good for Fine Gael? Was it good for Labour? Couldn’t Micheal Martin have been a bit more gracious? How come Goofy wears trousers and Pluto is naked: are there two different dog species in the Disney universe? One of the success stories of Ireland’s bailout, from the ruling point of view, is the way the mediated spectacle of representation worked to enhance the legitimacy and inevitability of the policies introduced during the bailout. If the point of a bailout is to keep political conflict out of policy, Ireland’s media played a blinder in supporting the bailout. One can imagine a story in the Irish Times or Prime Time: ‘As Ireland’s entire population perishes this week in a nuclear holocaust, what are the implications for Fine Gael and for Enda Kenny as leader?’

I’m not quite sure how public opinion is going to be managed in this brave new era of “sovereignty regained”. On the surface that confronts us, it looks like the bailout exit is simply going to strengthen confidence in the parties of Ireland’s political establishment and the political possibilities they offer. But beneath the surface, desperation and despondency abound in parts that fairy stories simply cannot reach. Whatever way you choose to paint it, class war waged from above hurts, after all.

What I think is going to happen is a reprise of Smile or Die positivity, with phalanxes of mind experts and batallions of media psych police placing the emphasis on ‘Die’: a necessary operation, when the bond markets -and, whisper it, our gallant allies- will be listening to see if we really deserve our regained sovereignty.

As for what has to be done against all this: there are any amount of abstract nouns and verbs that can be prescribed as a solution, and which will all have precisely zero effect, when divorced from the immediate concrete reality of people’s experiences. One idea, perhaps, might be to get people to open up about where it hurts, and how. Collective political diagnosis against the policing manuals of the atomised self. Or, if you like, democracy against capitalism.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Road To Joy


The news that Ireland will be exiting the EU-IMF bailout next month is the most significant development since this country’s 2011 democratic revolution.

When the Irish people voted in a new government and thereby executed a democratic revolution, even those with the highest of hopes for the new order could not have imagined that the shining moment of restored economic sovereignty would arrive so soon, and in such glory.

Let us give credit to our departing Troika partners. They have shown us that democratic revolutions are about challenging the people to do more with less, to go the extra mile, to realise that true service to democracy means being prepared to go hungry, or sick, or without work, or abroad, so that a vibrant market economy -the bedrock of any democracy- can woo investors.

Ireland’s democratic revolution has been the decisive moment of a nation’s maturity.

During the bailout, the nation proved its maturity in putting the interests of potentially disappointed bond investors ahead of people’s own selfish interest in luxuries such as basic health care and education. No expense or cancer patient was spared in order to demonstrate that this Democracy was open for business.

Now that this cold hard slog has ended, in which the Nation’s mettle has been sorely tested, Ireland looks to the future, forward looking and going forward, safe in the knowledge that better days lie ahead, better days for us to eke out in the colder, harder slogs of the brave new decades of Democracy that beckon us.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

JobBridge: The Number of the Beast


JobBridge. Has it started to dawn yet, do you think, that this scheme has nothing at all to do with getting people back into paid employment and everything to do with undermining the conditions of those who are in paid employment? What JobBridge represents is the de facto abolition of paid employment.

The fact that JobBridge is now being used in the public sector is not, as might be claimed, a desperate attempt to meet public needs at a time when funding is systematically suffocated.

Rather, it is a means of subjecting public sector workers to market discipline, with a view to privatising these services altogether. It is a means of saying to these workers: you know, we’d pay you nothing if we could get away with it, and hopefully we will.

It tends to get forgotten in Ireland -not least because public sector unions that prop up right wing governments refuse to remind people of it- that the task of a public sector worker -whether in health or education or the civil service or anywhere else- is to ensure that the democratic rights of citizens to necessary goods and services are vindicated.

Therefore the use of JobBridge in the public sector should be seen as an attack on the rights of citizens, the people whom Joan Burton and her fascist little toad colleague Brian Hayes refer to as “customers”.

Because JobBridge is part of a project of converting public goods and services, and citizens, into commodities, for the purposes of profit and the 1%.

What JobBridge reveals is that the left wing of the Troika Party, the Labour Party -whose smarmy public representatives are effusive about the scheme’s successes- is indeed engaged in a ‘battle at the gates of hell’, as Jack O’Connor says. But it is not battling to defend the working class from a right wing assault, as O’Connor claims. Rather, it is battling on the side of Beelzebub.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On (Not) Bringing Up The Bodies


Most of the time I don’t take the things Ireland’s government and political establishment do personally. I might find them objectionable, appalling even, and they may impact me to a greater or lesser degree, but I rarely get the feeling they’re doing something that singles me out.

I do get this feeling, however, with the way the matter of loyalist collusion, brought to light in copious detail by Anne Cadwallader’s book, has been studiously ignored, at the very moment ruling Irish politicians and prominent commentators make a show of their concern for the Disappeared.

If Enda Kenny or any of his colleagues were truly concerned about people who execute others extrajudicially and dump their bodies so that they can never be found, they wouldn’t suck up to Barack Obama and share a stage with him. Obama’s oversight of the operation to find Bin Laden, capture him, execute him in the presence of his 12 year old daughter, and dump his body at sea, without even a tissue of pretence of due legal process, was a matter of public record and officially flaunted photos in the days before his visit to Ireland in 2011.

So the concern for the IRA’s Disappeared is not a matter of principle but of political opportunity. This, as a recent Cedar Lounge Revolution post showed, means that the Disappeared can be brought up as a means of wriggling out of mildly awkward questions about social welfare and other matters.

This concern, as with the concern about Garda Jerry McCabe’s death, has nothing to do with upholding standards of human rights and morality and everything to do with protecting political ascendancy in the South and maintaining smooth and mutually beneficial relations with the British government. Enda Kenny’s concern for Jean McConville is as genuine as that of Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister.

Perhaps it’s naive and simple-minded of me to expect, in light of such facts as staging the Queen’s visit on the anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, and the Tánaiste planning on inviting the British royal family to the 1916 centenary celebrations, that Ireland’s political establishment might emit some kind of public concern, no matter how tokenistic and mealy-mouthed, about the demonstrated role of British security forces in the deaths of dozens of innocent Irish citizens, or about the fact that these murders served to prolong the conflict they claim to abhor. But neither they nor their court scribes will say anything, because, in the end, to say something might not provoke a crisis of state, but it would interfere with their power lust.

The reason I take it personally is because I lived through the conflict they claim to abhor, and with the immediate social effects of loyalist collusion. When they ignore it, when they downplay it, or when they seek to tether it to something Sinn Féin is expected to do, they’re saying to me: we don’t give a shit about your experiences. You are nothing to us, and the shitty little place you come from and the shitty little war you had up there is only of interest to us if it lets us scare people down here and elevate ourselves to a superior morality.

And frankly, I hate them for it.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Great Depression Recession

The news in Ireland these last few days has featured high-profile individuals –men- who have given public accounts of how they suffer from depression.

What struck me about the men who admitted to depression was the way they were celebrated for having started a necessary conversation.

One writer, in Denis O’Brien’s Irish Independent, wrote of a ‘groundswell of relief that men are finally starting to admit all is not well in the world of the Irish male’, and that ‘thanks to a growing men’s movement, it’s increasingly clear that men are starting to talk about their feelings, fears, suffering and frustrations’.

Yesterday I turned on Liveline on the public broadcaster RTE, and heard people talking openly about their depression and saluting the high-profile men who had had the courage to open up. Social media was aflutter with admiration for what the men had done.

Well, maybe it is admirable, and maybe it does take courage to admit that you suffer from depression or other mental illnesses.

But look at the way such individuals are celebrated for their bravery and the degree of media attention given to the personal story whilst the social factors involved in mental illness are ignored. These social factors include government policies deliberately aimed at exacerbating mental torment, which sometimes go under the name of ‘incentives’, and, more pointedly, cuts to mental health funding. To treat the solitary heroic individual as a role model in these circumstances is to ignore the social and political dimensions of these problems.

“You can’t keep a good man down”, read the Irish Independent headline about RTE broadcaster John Murray telling of his depression on returning to his radio show after a long break. Did the subeditor think about the corollary to such a phrase: that if someone becomes mentally ill and stays that way, it may be because they are evil?

Let me tell you what this celebration of men’s openness about their depression reminds me of: The Full Monty. In that film you have a group of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers who wind up performing a striptease in order to regain a sense of self-worth after the humiliation of unemployment. Do you remember the time when Full Monty shows were held up and down the country, in aid of charitable causes (what else)? The film was distributed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Searchlight pictures.

As a cultural event, what it told people was that the course of economic Progress had its casualties, but that being on the dole and living a precarious existence could even be fun, provided you were prepared to grin and bare it. To get your dignity back, you had to lose it. Only by doing this would your family and friends accept you again.

The wider media context for the public accounts of depression is, in Ireland, a public broadcaster that treats policies of austerity –the protection of profits through cuts to public services and wage deflation and the dismantling of social supports- and bank bailouts as self-evident necessities. (This evening the first item on the news was Dublin’s collapsing hospitals; the second was praise for Ireland from the Troika.) It devotes, in its programming time, a remarkable amount of airtime to the matter of how people can train their minds to adapt to the new reality.

I wrote about this before:

Flourishing author Maureen Gaffney is the example that springs most readily to mind; there is also Tony Bates, who had a Psychology Series on the Marian Finucane show and who frequently appears at public events as the ‘resident psychologist’ for that show. RTE’s afternoon show Drivetime had a regular feature called Mind Time in which the presenter spoke to a clinical psychologist about aspects of personal mental life. An RTE television series titled Not Enough Hours entailed ‘Psychologist and Time Management Expert, Owen Fitzpatrick’ helping families come to terms with the pressures of running a household and holding down a job, or looking for a new job. David Coleman, a clinical psychologist specialising in children, is billed by the RTE’s Tubridy show as ‘Tubridy family psychologist’ is another expert making frequent appearances on both TV and radio. In a blurb for David Coleman’s book, Ryan Tubridy says that For a clear, concise and coherent take on the world of family life, David Coleman is the first man we go to‘. Operation Transformation, a series concerned with weight loss and the consequent transformation of one’s life, uses the services of Dr Eddie Murphy MBA, a Principal Clinical Psychologist with the HSE. He is also a contributor to the Marian Finucane Show, the John Murray Show, and the Ryan Tubridy Show.

… I recalled a survey conducted a couple of years ago, published in the Irish Times, I think, that found that what people surveyed on unemployment lines most wanted to talk about was political solutions to the social and economic crisis in which they found themselves.

Meeting such a demand would entail a process of dialogue, a process of questioning of fundamental assumptions about how society ought to be run. It would entail asking about what things ought to be prioritised and protected. It would involve widespread participation from citizens, and in particular those most affected by the crisis. No such thing has been facilitated by the public broadcaster. On the contrary, its reliance on experts, on expert opinion over public participation, has served to block any such process.

Before I go any further, let me say that I am glad John Murray, one of the men who admitted to depression, is feeling better and think that it is excellent that he enjoyed the support from his employer, RTE, during his recovery. What is more I think that if his admission has helped people open up about their own problems, then that is an unalloyed good thing.

However I cannot help but be struck by the fact that John Murray is a former Progressive Democrat and FF-PD government spokesman. He may also be a perfectly nice and caring person, and his depression may have very little to do with any of his work activities. In his public life, though, he has had both a political commitment and a career in support of the implementation of economic and social policies based on free market economic doctrine, which hinges on the dogmatic conviction that the pursuit of individual self-interest is conducive to the good of the social whole, or, for short, that greed is good.

In broader macroeconomic terms, the doctrine hinges on the conviction –shared by the entire political establishment and more broadly across Ireland’s owning class- that the direct evils of unemployment, exploitation and deprivation will turn out, at some point in the future, to bring indirect and as yet abstract goods.

The implementation of this doctrine has, as the last years have shown, had a destructive effect on Irish society, not only manifest during the crisis in the forms of unemployment; personal financial crises and humiliations;, cuts to public services, including mental health services; but also in the cementing of a cult of the entrepreneur, in which the highest honour that can be bestowed on someone is that they make other people a means to their end, and in the demonisation of public servants as workshy parasites who make the most of their sick leave provisions to live high on the hog. The purpose of this demonisation is the destruction of the power of organised labour, of worker rights, and of any form of collective solidarity.

All such things –and the progressively harsher social climate in which they occur- are important social factors in depression and other mental illnesses. Very rarely, if ever, do they appear in public discussions on the subject. What we have instead are celebrations of the heroic solitary individual who has been to the brink and come back, now ready to open up and bare all.

Foremost among the outlets for opening up about depression is the aforementioned Liveline programme. Ordinary members of the public can speak honestly and often movingly about their experience. While you are listening to it, you often feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy for the people doing the talking. But then: nothing.

Liveline is not a continued dialogue, but a release valve, a means of creating the impression that people do care and mean well on the whole, that it’s a great country, and so on. However, when it comes to politics, Liveline is the first line of defence of Ireland’s electoral absolutism: that whatever the government does, they have a legitimate right to do it and if you don’t like it you can always vote them out and if the country votes in a particular way then that’s that and people get what they deserve, ultimately.

The two things –the opening up and talking about what affects you most deeply, and the hardline electoral absolutism- on the surface of it do not seem related. If so, it is probably because we don’t think about how the political system shapes the way we think about how we relate to other people. What happens in a system where the only form of participation in politics is a vote every four years (and if you don’t like that why aren’t you standing for election yourself?) is that the universal franchise, as Costas Douzinas points out in his recent book on the Greek crisis:

radically individualises the population and then reassembles them through a simple aggregation of votes. This double trans-substantiation of socially embedded people into isolated monads and their subsequent gathering into a ‘sovereign’ people is the great achievement of representative democracy…’we, the people’ are sovereign in the few seconds we spend in the polling booth placing the cross against the candidate’s name. But the miraculous transformations elections carry out do not extend to political life before and after the elections.

‘Isolated monads’. How, precisely, would you expect an isolated monad to avoid depression? So, why would anyone think, aside from the fact that mental health is seriously rationed on the basis of wealth anyway,  that Ireland’s political system, and its dominant ideas about politics, are conducive to mental health?

(A couple of asides: the Minister with responsibility for mental health in the previous Irish government also owned a pub.

Today I came across an article in a business magazine that celebrated the drinks company Heineken for its Corporate Social Responsibility work. ‘HEINEKEN: SUPPORTING THE COMMUNITY’, read the headline, then, ‘Heineken Ireland has partnered with the Simon Community to great effect’. The Simon Community is a homeless charity. As a result of Heineken’s work, ‘Cork Simon has now initiated a pilot Alcohol Addiction Aftercare programme for service users’.)


Filed under Uncategorized

Robert Webb Is A Prick

Last week when I was writing about Russell Brand’s article in the New Statesman, I didn’t want to subject it to too close a reading because there are some things that are written with intentional precision and deserve to be read with precision, and there are other things that are more disorganised and impressionistic, and you can come across as a bit of a prick by turning a grim laser-like focus onto something that was never written to withstand that kind of focus.

Russell Brand’s writing is scattergun and imprecise and is never going to be the kind of thing that people who want detailed plans for revolutionary action want to see. Would you go looking for orange juice inside a bottle of Domestos?

Maybe there are very good reasons to be suspicious of Russell Brand, given his flagrantly sexist behaviour and given the fact his considerable wealth affords him the privilege of advocating whatever course of action he wishes under present circumstances without the risk that it might impact him materially. However that doesn’t make it any less interesting that his interventions caught the attention of a very wide audience, who were receptive to the general thrust of what he was saying.

Unless you think that most people are gullible idiots who can be spontaneously led astray from their habitual convictions by a silver-tongued charmer, the fact that there were very many people who responded positively to what he was saying is, I think, evidence of a shift in political consciousness. And when I say a shift I’m not saying it’s a major shift and I don’t think it’s one caused by Russell Brand so don’t take this as me claiming Russell Brand has single-handedly summoned up a hitherto dormant new revolutionary force.

For sure, there’s no shortage of individuals who think the masses are gullible idiots incapable of putting one thought in front of another on matters political. You can find such individuals among the ranks of the people who shout “sheeple!” at passers-by, and the political correspondents of major newspapers, to name two constituencies, which may or may not overlap.

Let’s say there have been two kinds of negative response to Brand. First you have people on the left exasperated at people treating Brand’s interventions as some kind of revelation, and treating him as some kind of messianic figure, given his history and current position of privilege.

Then you have others who view Brand’s interventions as an affront to their conceived notions about the existing political system, and even a threat to the proper functioning of that system. He must be shown to be wrong. So Brand is a wealthy egomaniac, an ‘adolescent waffler’ (Joan Smith, The Independent), and even a proto-fascist who sympathises with ‘the death cults of ultra-reactionary religious fundamentalists’, as well as someone who writes like a ‘precocious prepubescent’ (Nick Cohen, The Observer), or talks like a a ’17-year-old cider enthusiast’ (Donald Clarke, The Irish Times).

You couldn’t say this kind of thing is unexpected. Whatever legitimacy the existing political and economic system has is in no small part the product of intense strivings on the part of people who identify with and believe in that system’s basic legitimacy. Some of these people, especially those who believe the system has bestowed a sweet smile upon them and recognised their worth, will find it hard to resist the opportunity to slap down, with no small amount of glee, any kind of attempt, however struggling, to articulate some kind of radical concrete opposition.

The demonstration of superior powers of reasoning, the act of tearing apart the confusions of some poor sap, the ample biceps of political maturity flexed alongside the puny flapping twigs of the political prepubescent for all to see –dear oh dear, what a mess, tsk! tsk! tsk!– can be passed off as evidence of the Reason of the Superior Power.

Such is the case with Robert Webb, one half of Mitchell and Webb, who wrote a piece in the New Statesman this week castigating Brand and claiming he would be re-joining the Labour Party in response.

In the vision of democracy Webb outlines to Brand, which is based on the primacy of the vote,

‘election day is when we really are the masters’.

That is, for 1,826 out of 1,827 days, which is the length of the last Labour Party government, UK voters were not really the masters: someone else was. Another way of putting this is that under British liberal democracy, according to Webb’s description, UK voters are not really the masters 99.945% of the time, or, for short, 100% of the time.

“If I thought I worked for David Cameron rather than the other way round”, says Webb, “I don’t know how I’d get out of bed in the morning.” Webb is correct – David Cameron does work – for him.

His fellow Labour Party member Owen Jones, in Chavs, writes of his encounter with a Tory grandee in his final year as an undergraduate at Oxford.

“What you have to realise about the Conservative Party,’ he said as though it was a throwaway trivial comment, ‘is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege.’

Thus Webb can get out of his bed in the morning, under British liberal democracy, safe in the knowledge that the Prime Minister is working to defend his privilege. The same can hardly be said, however, of the millions of working class people subjected to the austerity regime initiated by Labour and intensified by the Tories, to the bedroom tax, the slashing of housing benefit, the privatisation of the NHS, to cuts to public services, to reliance on food banks, to media demonisation, and so on, and so forth.

The work of destroying any kind of material basis for democratic equality can continue unimpeded (let’s be generous) 99.945% of the time by Webb’s lights, and it is perfectly legitimate to so do  and David Cameron is doing this on everyone’s behalf. If people don’t like this, says Webb, they can vote for Labour Party politicians, who, he says disregarding Labour’s role in intensifying neoliberal rule will “help unlucky people”, Labour’s role in engineering such bad luck now neatly consigned to oblivion.

Webb decides to deliver lessons in prose and in history to Brand, and by extension, to the readership.

First the prose:

In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful.

And then, the history:

 Do I wake up every day and thank God that I live in 21st-century Britain? Of course not. But from time to time I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege. On Remembrance Sunday, for a start.

The implication in Webb’s prose is that the liberal democratic regime of 21st-century Britain -with its food banks- is a privilege won through war.

Remembrance Sunday: on which the hapless impoverished victims of imperial carnage are remembered as ‘Our Glorious Dead’ and the victims of British military atrocities are conveniently forgotten. But Russell Brand is the one apparently suggesting violence is beautiful.

Some people living in that part of Ireland that is still considered part of 21st-century Britain, could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow here, given that Webb’s identification of British military power as the force and the source of democracy occurs right at a time when details have emerging about those forces’ complicity in the deaths of 120 people, in British jurisdiction, in sectarian attacks ‘whose aim was simply to kill as many people as possible, simply because they were Catholics‘, as Channel 4 correspondent Alex Thomson described it. Their privilege, I suppose.

“We (the English) got our revolution out of the way long before the French and the Americans”, lectures Webb, as if political revolution is some kind of one-off national rite of passage from ancient to modern.

He might have improved that sentence by saying “and we prevented proletarian revolution by getting our working class to fight in the First World War”, if only to flesh out the historical continuity of his political position, though he may need to recontextualise his remarks about the inevitable murderous consequences of political revolution.

It’s telling that Webb appeals, in his attempt to slap down Brand, to the jingoistic military pageantry of the British establishment that identifies monarchy as compatible with democracy, and not, for instance, the substance of democratic movements during the English Revolution- the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters or the Muggletonians: their challenges to social authority and refusal to accept the norms imposed by the regime of private property.

You see, the truth is, he has a great deal more in common with Charles I than any of those groups.


Filed under Uncategorized