A ‘reform alliance’: “Get your filthy hands off my belly!” – El Roto.
I have about as much interest in finding out more about the Reform Alliance as I do in having my head opened with a spade. But let me relate a few of the things that I do know about it, and hopefully leave it at that.
From a left wing standpoint, ideas about reform have particular characteristics. Reform may be concerned with introducing legislation that improves the living standards of the working class, or guarantees for marginalised groups, or setting limits to employer exploitation, or increasing democratic control over political administration.
From a right wing standpoint, ideas about reform usually concern the preservation of the status quo, or the restoration of ruling class power. So when we hear about ‘welfare reform’, this usually means changing the social welfare system in order to cut expenditure or entitlements. It also carries a strong suggestion of reforming the people who currently have an entitlement to welfare. So ‘welfare reform’ can take the form of ‘activation measures’, which is to say, measures to tackle the implied passivity of people who receive unemployment benefit, for instance.
So the idea of reform frequently carries an undertone -or an overtone, you can pick- of moral judgement. When you hear someone say, “he’s a reformed character”, that usually implies the person in question has abandoned his old habits, whether drunkenness or criminality or sexual lasciviousness, and undergone a process of rehabilitation that makes him tolerable to society at large. In this vein, you may wish to consider the fact that Brendan Howlin is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Not ‘Public Sector Reform’; just ‘Public Reform’. We might read into this that the purpose of his department is to reform the public sector and all the reprobates who work in it. We might also read into this that the purpose of the department is to reform the public. Perhaps the public needs reform. Perhaps they should stop believing they are entitled to things as citizens. Perhaps they should become customers instead (in fact, there are no perhapses about it, this is official policy, you can check). Perhaps the public needs dissolving, and a more slimmed down, nimble and less demanding public put in its place.
The mass media exercises a major influence over people’s ideas about reform, obviously. So throughout the last six years or so of economic disaster and social misery, it has trumpeted the need for political reform, as have Beelzebub knows how many political figures. Now there are a couple of obvious facts to bear in mind here. One is that Ireland’s mass media is right wing in its entirety (apart, apparently, from Hot Press, at least according to an Irish Times commenter who informed me it was a hotbed of leftist sedition). The other is that there has never been a left wing government in Ireland. The other -OK, this is more than a couple and this is not so obvious- is that the last number of years have seen policies introduced that increase profits and social inequality and deepen atomisation and poverty. The last one means that frustration with the political system, and with politicans in general, tends to bubble up, often in ways that are not necessarily in keeping with uprisings that seek left-leaning political change and greater equality in society, since this is not something many people have as a lived experience, but more in keeping with a nihilistic attitude towards social change: they’re all the same, nothing can be done, if it wasn’t for all these bankers and Jews and Lizards and migrants and fiat currency we’d all be sucking diesel.
So, the kind of political reform demanded by the mass media, given the fact that Ireland’s mass media is uniformly right wing, is the kind of political reform intended to keep things basically the way they are in terms of power relations and the implementation of orthodox -that is, neoliberal- public policy. And these ideas about political reform are shared by plenty of members of the political establishment, as you might expect. And -since frustration and hatred of politicians is a cause for concern from the point of view of the political establishment, if not necessarily the business establishment, which can always issue a set of crisply pressed blue shirts if things get too hairy- you will have initiatives, such as the Reform Alliance, which tart up the denial and removal of social rights that have typified the last number of years, under a new guise.
Remember, it is not that Ireland’s political establishment is opposed to the state, as per a common conception of right wing politics. On the contrary, it seeks to use the state for the purposes of the financial and business elites that it serves. The Reform Alliance, based as it is on a rupture within Fine Gael on the matter of abortion, simply wishes to continue to use the state to control women’s bodies. But since any removal of rights can, under the current regime, be characterised as ‘reform’, its central figures -whose convictions, it has to be said, differ very little from many Fine Gael members on the question of abortion- are treated by Ireland’s media as figures of probity and principle. Because ‘reform’ at present means rights must end, whether at birth or otherwise.