Monthly Archives: January 2014

Habemus Legatus!

I left this comment on the article in today’s Irish Times by James Sheehan, which is titled ‘Radical reform and renewal needed in our obsolete hospital system’.


-“What’s the diagnosis, doctor?”

Elsewhere in today’s Irish Times, John Waters reviews a recent study by Julien Mercille of UCD, and concludes that economic debate in Ireland’s main newspapers was characterised by “an overwhelming degree of uncritical acceptance of fiscal consolidation/austerity”. This study also revealed the predominance of figures from elite institutions among outside writers. We might speculate, mutatis mutandis, if the same thing happens in other areas of public debate, such as health and social affairs.

The study cited by John Waters grounded the media coverage in successive Irish governments’ addressing of the crisis by following neoliberal principles – austerity, ‘structural reforms’, privatisation of public assets, and the protection of the financial sector against the interests of the population at large.

In this particular article by James Sheehan, the founder of the private Blackrock Clinic and someone who can get the Minister for Health to speak at his book launch, there is a great deal that conforms to the same neoliberal principles. Let me focus on one aspect in particular: the idea that healthcare planning -as with so many other aspects of public policy under neoliberalism- must be “removed from political interference”.


On the surface, this, under the guise of blandishments about “radical reform”, may appear an attractive idea: why should self-serving politicians stick their oar in and wreck attempts by experts to improve public health? But politicians -even if they often act in Ireland as the enemies of people who elected them- are supposed to represent the interests of the public at large.

What James Sheahan calls “political interference” is, in fact, supposed to be someone articulating concerns on behalf of the public. And rightly so, since the health of the public, the quality of services they are able to access, the question of who owns hospitals and who pays for them, are fundamental political issues.

So even as Sheahan talks up the “shame” of “concerned citizens” due to the parlous state of Irish hospitals, he advocates that such citizens should hand over the decision making process to the experts. Trust us, we’re doctors.

Well, it’s one thing to trust in medical practitioners who are treating you for a condition. But as we have seen in recent days with payment scandals in publicly-funded bodies, it’s another thing entirely to entrust the running of the health system to unaccountable private interests, however much Ireland’s media might try, on behalf of elite interests, to shape our disposition in this direction.

And it’s worth dwelling on the particular elite interests getting expressed in this article. James Sheehan is also a patron of the Iona Institute, which has one columnist writing weekly in the Irish Times, and another writing weekly in the Irish Independent. The Institute also has regular access for its contributors to RTÉ and other media channels, where it often appears as a representative voice for committed Catholics.

It has, in other words, a powerful media presence, conferring it the power to shape public perceptions about what is possible (private health, private education) and what is not (universal healthcare, an end to government funding for private schools) what is acceptable (heteronormative families where the mother works unpaid to maintain the home and raise children) and what is not (gay marriage, abortion).

Perhaps John Waters could examine the influence of these elite interests in his next article? I am sure there would be a great deal more to discuss, particularly in terms of how private actors can exercise decisive control over institutions that many people assume to be public.

ADDS: A recent feature in Legatus Magazine, the journal of the ‘organisation for top-ranking Catholic business leaders’ -‘and their spouses’-, Legatus’ 2013 Ambassador of the Year, outlines how “Jimmy and Rosemary faced a lot of opposition from political parties and various people trying to put obstacles in the way of their setting up the (private) hospitals.” Political interference, how are you.

Sheehan is reported in the article as saying “with the religious orders largely withdrawing from health care due to lack of numbers, I felt it was important that those of us in the laity took up that role, to propagate the culture of Catholic hospitals.”

The article also says that “a prominent chapel is at the heart of the Galway Clinic, right off the main lobby, with wards surrounding it named for Our Lady of Knock, Blessed John Paul II, and Blessed Mother Teresa.”


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Constitution and Language

This is a translation of an article by Pablo Bustinduy. The original was published on his website on 25th September 2012.

Constitution and language.

To adapt to every change and event, words too had to change their habitual meanings.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, III, 82.

1. Thucydides’s sentence occurs amid a description of chaos. It is a political chaos, full of violence, disorder and uncertainty, unleashed by the civil war in Corfu, Athens’s ally in the Peloponnesian War. Beneath his steely tone, Thucydides can scarcely hide his terror faced with the consequences of the stasis, the conflict that tears the polis apart from within. With the support of Sparta and an army of mercenaries, the oligarchs conspire to bring down the democracy; the demos of Corfu unites with the slaves and takes up arms to defend it and save its alliance with Athens. Thucydides then says: the scene served as a model or a template for a whole chain of democratic revolutions in Greece. And words, in order to adapt to all the changes and events, also had to alter their habitual meanings.

2. In Philosophical Investigations (§531), Wittgenstein says there are two ways of understanding a sentence. A phrase can be understood when it can be replaced by another which says the same thing in a different way. But a sentence can also be understood in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other, nor can even one of its words be changed. In the first case, one can paraphrase, express the idea in a different way, translate, simplify, explain. In the second, one feels that this meaning can only be transmitted by those same words and in that precise order, and that any alteration, however minor, will cause it to lose power or a substantial part of its meaning, as happens when reading a poem. In the first instance, the meaning is common to many sentences; in the second, it is the meaning of a singularity that cannot be reduced.

3. In a political revolution, the established order begins to crack outward from its sentences. Constitutional sentences, policing sentences, consensual sentences: they all lose the potential to determine community, to define what things are trying to say, to delimit, in the end, the sphere of common sense, of meaning and its legitimacy. A constitution is above all a regime of representation, a field of possible meanings that bind what can be said and what is understood at the moment of saying what is said, and thereby ensure, within that field, that concepts and ideas become translatable, reproducible, open to manipulation and control. When a constitution cracks, there are suddenly words which rediscover their singularity, which unhitch themselves from the sentences that contain them, and they allow the recuperation of their meaning, a meaning that is incommensurable with and irreducible to the order that can no longer translate them. The word independence, like the word revolution, no longer fits either the space allotted to it or the established grammar: its meaning demands the generation of a new way of speaking in order to explain it, to render common that which right now cannot be said in any other way.

4. Unable to conceal his disdain, Aristotle says in Politics (V, IV) that revolutions are carried out in two ways: by force or by means of fraud. Fraud in turn has two aspects: sometimes citizens are fooled into assenting to a change of government, and are swiftly betrayed and subjected against their will. In the second case, citizens are persuaded to support the revolution, and afterwards they are persuaded once again to maintain their loyalty and keep the peace in the city. What changes from one case to the other is the attitude of the citizens, but not the meaning of things, since Aristotle implies that the new order never keeps its word. This is something to bear in mind in the present situation: if independence for Catalonia, for example, does not involve blowing apart the corrupt bigwig clientelist system that rules it today; if it is confined to simply struggle against a looting, but not against its source and origin, against the capitalist dictatorship of debt; if it confines itself, ultimately, to being a carbon copy of the transition’s shamelessness, albeit with a local twist, the fraud will be consummated and the opportunity for emancipation lost. The same risk, only different, speaks in Spain through the voices of technocratic demagogy. It is not a matter of saying the same thing in a different way. Emancipation means: making words and things alter in their constituent relation, in what they authorise and make possible when the former are bound to the latter.

5. The word ‘constitution’ does not only refer to a juridical apparatus or a set of laws subordinated to a single order or principle. Foucault explains this in Society must be defended: a constitution is something that does not refer so much to the order of the law as to the order of force, to the force of practices and the force of discourses, to a balance and a back and forth that establishes itself between the two and stabilises them, creating an order between the two, between their asymmetries and inequalities. The conclusion is clear: the sovereign is not he who defines words vertically, from nowhere, and once and for all, but he who is able to rule this order, to make words that already exist correspond to the practices that set each thing in its place and each subject to her position. Hence a revolution is not carried out by simply replacing one set of laws with another, but by accumulating forces whereby laws, unable to contain that which overwhelms them, can no longer keep a hold on practices and discourses, places and positions. A constitution cracks whenever this imbalance becomes ungovernable: just as in the Corfu of Thucydides, it is a matter of getting this force to institute new meanings for old words. To not yet have the language to describe the future is not a problem: the problem is to possess it and for it to mean nothing.

Illustration by Ramón Rodríguez.

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Trouble With The Mill


Yesterday evening I went along to a meeting about Balbriggan library. The venue was the upstairs floor of the Milestone Inn, a pub on Balbriggan’s main thoroughfare, which nowadays consists of so many takeaways that it hardens your arteries just trying to count them. If you are on the lookout for attractive buildings you might consider the old bank building opposite Railway Street, which was upgraded from a bank to a funeral parlour at some point during the current economic crisis.

People hold public meetings in the Milestone Inn because there is nowhere else to hold them. This last few years I have been to a number of meetings there, and have at times made up 25 percent of the public. The surroundings are perfectly suitable for a Friday night disco where people are far too interested in drinking and getting down on the dancefloor to be worried about the surroundings. When the place is deserted, as it usually is at public meetings, it feels like a scene from a David Peace novel. And you feel like one of the characters. But it’s the only place. The town doubled in size to around 20,000 over the last decade or so and a decent venue for discussing the common life of the town was never going to be high up on the planning authorities’ list of priorities: there were developer urges to be sated. Oh, and Phil Hogan decided to abolish Balbriggan Town Council -an institution over 150 years old- at the stroke of a pen. Welcome to democracy in Balbriggan.

Last night was different. My guess is 300 or so people turned up. When I got to the pub there was a queue to get in. The queue snaked through the ample enough lounge area and up the flight of stairs, and the upstairs area was bunged.

Fingal County Council has decided to move the library to a nearby former mill building. As I understand it, the intention is for the Office of Public Works to buy the mill building and then lease it to Fingal County Council, which will use it for the library and, it has been suggested, a museum. Meanwhile the library building -which also houses the soon-to-be-abolished Town Council, will be handed over to the Department of Social Protection, which will use the building as a site for one of its rebranded ‘Intreo’ centres.

The plan to move the library from its existing building has materialised without any kind of public consultation. For many people this seems to be the final straw, the ultimate expression of the contempt displayed by public authorities toward the local population.

For all the traffic that passes through it, the town centre is quite a desolate place now, with many premises closed down and boarded up, as a consequence both of the recession and the centre of commercial gravity shifting up towards the new Tesco behemoth that overlooks the town.

The library, for locals, is not just a pleasant place to go in its own right, but a public institution that is bound up with the historical memory of the community and its sense of identity. Its removal from pride of place in the town would mean, for many people, the end of the town as they knew it.

Several speakers brought up the names of people who used to work in the library, and remembered them with affection. Others spoke of childhood memories of going to the library. People seemed bewildered at the thought that what was such a precious thing for the life of the town should be taken away.

There was some speculative discussion of the financial interests operating behind the decision. Debts accumulated by Fingal County Council. The local consortium who currently own the mill building who, it was speculated, were out to make a tidy sum from the operation. The involvement of Moriarty was suggested, which sounded a rather sinister note for me since some people immediately started objecting to the naming of names, until I realised they were talking about the local supermarket and hotel magnate, not some Satanic criminal mastermind.

As far as I could see, everyone there was white. News of the meeting seemed to have spread through circuits, online and off, that involve mostly people who have lived in the place since well before its dramatic expansion. People living in the newer parts of town, where there is a greater proportion of migrants, were inevitably out of such a loop. One of the organisers referred to the fact that most of those in attendance were familiar faces, and that there was a need to encourage newer town residents to take part.

The fact that the library is to be turned into a social welfare office -as opposed to some other kind of building- seemed to be a particular cause of concern for some. One individual, with an eloquence I found unnerving, compared the “Beauty” of the library to the “Beast” of the social welfare office. One meant knowledge, culture, history. Andrew Carnegie had built a beautiful library to reflect that. Whereas the dole office, by its very nature, was a “beast of a building”. “You cannot send someone to collect his dole cheque in a building that reflects wealth, affluence and beauty”, he said, in an observation that many people saw fit to applaud.

By the standards of North County Dublin property developers, Andrew Carnegie can look like something approaching a secular saint. But his beneficial legacy to Balbriggan in the form of a pleasant library building can obscure some uncomfortable truths. “There are higher uses for surplus wealth than adding petty sums to the earnings of the masses”, he wrote. “Trifling sums given to each every week or month…would be frittered away, nine times out of 10, in things which pertain to the body and not to the spirit.”

Carnegie worked vigorously to smash organised labour at his factories and introduced 12 hour days. He was a devotee of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinist view of the survival of the fittest. Contrary to what some people seem to think, Carnegie would have endorsed the financial suffocation of local councils in the pursuit of profit. He would have had no problem with the removal of public services that got in the way of wealth accumulation by the high and mighty. If profit meant demoralising a community and driving it into ignorance by mothballing a library and consigning it to museum status, he would have given it the thumbs up without hesitation. He would see nothing wrong with forcing a trade-off between a decent public library and decent social welfare services, or with ratcheting down the quality of both.

If Balbriggan library occupies a special place in local people’s affections it isn’t because of an enlightened social vision on the part of Andrew Carnegie -who accumulated his vast wealth through the ruthless exploitation of multitudes- but because of what local people and those who have worked in it have done with it down through the years. It ought to be possible to campaign for both a decent and flourishing public library and decent social welfare services in the town without having to see it in terms of the Beast of unemployed masses out to devour the Beauty of the library.

The meeting exposed the threadbare quality of municipal politics in the town. After a couple of candidates to the upcoming local election had given a couple of brief but hardly electioneering statements supportive of the meeting and of keeping the library where it is, one Town Councillor stood up and denounced the fact that the meeting had turned “political”, and then left. As if a meeting to prevent a public library from being moved were not by its very nature political, and as if Fingal County Council were not a political institution, and as if he himself were not a politician! In Balbriggan as in many other parts of Ireland, politics is constantly presented as something practised by politicians, not everyday people. This is an image of politics that many politicians, of course, are more than happy to maintain.

On the whole, people seemed buoyed by the sense that after a long time sitting around muttering about the state of things in private, this was a public sign that people really did care about their town and were not willing to be trampled on any longer. Some people spoke with passion and emotion about “taking the town back” (but from whom?). Clare Daly, one of the local TDs, received the biggest applause of the night when she said that in a strange way, the attempt to move the library was in a way one of the best things to happen to the town since it had resulted in such a show of strength, the biggest such meeting in any town in the Fingal area in recent years. There will be a protest on February 10th outside the County Council Offices in Swords, and petitions to be circulated.


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Watery, Grave


“Water that flows is money that gets lost” – El Roto.

The ‘spending on consultants’ story: you would get the impression that all there is to consultancy is a cadre of sharp suits and even sharper glasses rocking up to Irish Water Towers and coming up with a long list of things that senior public servants need to implement.

You might also get the impression there are people who already work in the public sector who know what they’re doing and could do an even better job, given the chance. The reality is a great deal more complex, I think: I doubt existing public sector entities have either the organisational capacity or institutional knowledge to implement the kind of infrastructure, in terms of technology and process, that would lead to the successful set-up of a commercial firm, which is what Irish Water is intended to be.

(To go off on a brief excursion, isn’t it strange to think of hydrogen and oxygen atoms as bearing a nationality? Isn’t it strange how water that reaches the island of Ireland which was formed somewhere overseas now gets classified as ‘Irish’ whereas human beings arriving from overseas can get imprisoned or subjected to slavery-like conditions or deported because they can never be Irish?)

The current focus of the press and politicians is on the figure of €50m, or €80m or €120m on the whole, but it may well turn out that the payment to these firms is in line with what is normally paid in accordance with public sector procurement guidelines.

What is interesting is the intensity of focus given to this particular aspect – the set-up costs- when there was scant attention and little public debate given to a) whether it was a good idea to charge for water in the first instance; b) the ramming through of legislation with utter contempt for even formal niceties in terms of oversight and debate from the political opposition. Also the decision by the previous government to refuse to recognise access to water as a human right at the United Nations was passed over in silence.

So the attention devoted to the spend seems to me a matter of finding out how well the door can be shut now that the horse has bolted. It is at this point -and no earlier- that the Oireachtas committees are being conferred the role of tough watchdogs: in ensuring that the commodification and commercialisation of water is competently dealt with. I imagine the outcome of this will be that the spending will be deemed to be partially though not wholly justified (because whilst the money paid might be close to the going market rates the Taxpayer always wants more Value For Money) with little attention given to the structures being put in place by the consultancy firms hired, e.g. do the structures mean that Irish Water is more or less likely to be privatised in future? Who is going to be responsible for running the business processes: will it be Irish Water employees or will it be outsourced firms? These firms are already very much engrained in the public sector at present, so a broader question would be whether the institutional logic imposed tends towards a greater commercialisation or privatisation of the public sector, or not. In fact, the ‘or not’ is superfluous: it is more a question of how far this brings us down the road away from citizens with rights towards consumers based on ability to pay. This is a fundamental question that neither Ireland’s political representatives nor its media establishment is equipped or inclined to ask.


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The Political System and its Choices

5a279-handThis is an extended response to an article in today’s Irish Times by Philip Lane, Whately Professor of Political Economy at Trinity College Dublin, which is titled ‘High mobility of capital and technology means prospects of economy are unclear’.

This article is about the economic policy choices facing the Irish political system. Can systems make choices? Perhaps they can, but not in the same way as human beings. For example, the cistern in my toilet system may ‘choose’ to fill up with water because I have just flushed it. And it may ‘choose’ to stop filling up with water once the float reaches a certain level. But if I don’t flush the toilet, it does nothing; it just sits there.

In the same way, the ‘choices’ of the political system -however configured- depend on human agency, a fact obscured by this article’s terminology, and more broadly, by standard economics terminology. The ‘political system’ may confront a whole load of bells and whistles -such as the “preventive arm” and the “corrective arm” of European fiscal discipline. However, in the final instance, these contraptions are maintained and operated by people. And if we bear in mind that this is how they work, and that they are not a battened-down logical machine impervious to any intervention, then we will eventually confront the question: in whose interests do they operate?

Thus the presentation of the ‘choices’ of the ‘political system’ is a mystification, but so too is the notion that facing the ‘political system’ is a set of conditions which have nothing to do with politics, and which do not form part of a political project in their own right.

So, for example, the conditions of the Fiscal Stability Treaty do not form part of the ‘political system’ in these terms, even if they have been established by politicians -elected and, in the case of people like Barroso, unelected- alongside business lobbies, banking lobbies, and so on. Again, the idea of the ‘political system’ versus the objective conditions obscures the question of human agency, and of conflicting material interests, and it suggests that the scope of political action is a great deal narrower than what it really is.

If our understanding of political action is simply a small group of politicians acting in consultation with economic advisers -which is the way organs like the Irish Times present it- then our ideas about what is possible are similarly constrained. But no matter: the possibility of a different political system -one that responds to the needs of the population, and governed by a democratic public opinion, as opposed to one that acts in the interests of the top 1 or so percent- is always there. This is likely to mean thinking beyond the nation-state boundaries assumed as natural facts in much of what informs common sense economic thought.

And it means -at the very minimum- destroying the paradigm articulated in this article and more generally. Because, as Paul Krugman recently observed, ‘the austerity agenda looks a lot like a simple expression of upper-class preferences, wrapped in a facade of academic rigor. What the top 1 percent wants becomes what economic science says we must do.’ Ultimately, as even Krugman has come to recognise, these seemingly neutral and objective ideas are effective implements of class domination.

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A dialogue on democracy and the republic – Part One

Originally posted on Irish Left Review, 29th October 2013. I will be publishing the second part either today or tomorrow.


Renewing the republic, rebuilding the republic, a new republic, a Second Republic, how stands the republic: it all circulates in the verbal debris of Ireland’s political and economic crisis, but what does all this republic stuff mean nowadays? And what is to be done with it? I wanted to pursue the idea of the republic in relation to the wider Eurozone crisis. What follows is the first part of a dialogue with philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop on the idea of the republic.

Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop taught modern philosophy in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid from 1981 to 1986. He translated Spinoza’s correspondence into Spanish and, as a member of the Association des Amis de Spinoza, has taken part in seminars and congresses in France and Italy. He is currently working as a senior translator in the Council of the European Union and is specialized in foreign policy matters. He is an advisory editor of the review Décalages (on Althusserian studies). He writes in European and Latin-American publications on Spinoza, Althusser, modern philosophy and political philosophy. His latest book is La dominación liberal (Liberal Domination. Essay on liberalism as a power apparatus) (Tierra de Nadie, Madrid, 2010). He is currently linked to the Philosophy Center of the Université libre de Bruxelles, where he is preparing a PhD on Spinoza in Althusser. His blog, in Spanish, is Iohannes Maurus.

Irish Left Review: The explosion of the 15-M in the Spanish State in 2011 began with the slogan Real Democracy Now! as its focus. It appealed to the sense among growing sectors of the population that the existing political order, despite claims to the contrary, was not democracy, given that decisive political power rested with powerful political and financial elites. This conflict opened up between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ democracy -between the appearance of the multitude in public squares and the police forces sent in to batter and criminalise and protect the existing regime- in seems to support Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that ‘democracy is not a form of state’.

Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop: One of the main problems the 15M had to face after its sudden appearance is the lack of a real political culture. There was indeed an important pars destruens in the action and the reflection by the 15M: they recognized, after decades of the so-called “culture of the transition” based on the idea of a “consensus on the need for a consensus”, that no democracy could ever work without a real place for antagonism.


Unfortunately, in post-Franco Spain, a tight consensus was imposed by both Right and Left on two basic tenets: that there is no alternative to market economy and that a very particular brand of representative democracy based on strict partitocracy, with hardly any direct political participation from the citizen, was the only game in town. Beyond these limits lay the Hell of economic “irresponsibility” and, even worse, the Hell of terrorism. All the anti-democratic features of the Spanish regime could be in some way or other concealed behind the “necessary compromises” of the “young democracy”, but after more than three decades, the much admired “young democracy” didn’t grow into an actually democratic form of government. In a country where the Left traded real citizens’ empowerment in for its integration in the system and a broad liberty in moral matters -as symbolized by Madrid’s “movida” and Almodovar’s films- everything remained quiet until the advent of the crisis.

There is no doubt that the 2008 financial and economic crisis revealed the regime as what it really is to large social sectors, mainly younger educated people, most of them the sons and daughters of working class families. For one month the 15M occupied the central square of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol, in some way imitating the north-African movements against tyrannical and semi-colonial dictatorships. People suddenly noticed a certain parallel between despotic oligarchical regimes and what until then had featured as a European democracy. Like in the neo-colonial world, the Spanish government acted in behalf of economic and financial powers entirely alien to the Spanish people, which saw itself obliged to pay back a debt it had never decided to take out. The very difference between what democracy is supposed to be, i.e., empowerment of the citizens and active participation in public decision-making, and the reality of an autocratic pro-finance regime became apparent. And people reacted.

This reaction had, in fact, a very important “epistemological effect”. Beyond the fact that people discovered that “what they call democracy is no such thing” (lo llaman democracia y no lo es), they added that “They” (those in power) “do not represent us”. People in the Spanish squares discovered that not only were the people currently in charge not representative of the social majorities, but moreover, that in no way whatsoever are people “representable’ by the parliament or the government. Democracy was certainly reclaimed, but not the sort prevailing in today’s Spain. People peacefully struggled in the Spanish 15M movement for a democracy which cannot be mere representation, and which needs the resistance of the people to be a real democracy. Machiavelli said in the Discourses on Titus Livius’ first Decade that freedom in the Roman Republic didn’t come from a perfect constitution, from a perfect order, but from conflict (tumultus) and resistance. Spinoza said the same in his Political Treatise. This line of thought, the materialist tradition of freedom, inspired many people with hardly any relation to philosophy. People were fed up of being considered as terrorists when not agreeing with the basic principles of the Spanish constitution of 78, and vitally needed to express their social interest in a political context where this interest has no legal means of expression.

When people discover and feel their own power, I think democracy ceases to appear as Rancière rightly says “a form of State”. Democracy is not a set of institutions under a legal constitutional frame, but the very existence of politics. Politics is not the mere management of a given population according to pre-established shares of power allowed to the different parts of society. This exhaustive sharing of the social parts and its conservation is not politics proper, but what Jacques Rancière calls “police”, a conservative action which reproduces the sharing as definitive. For democracy -or what amounts to the same thing, politics- to exist, there must always exist “a share of the shareless” in society, so that simply anyone could take part in decision-making, regardless of qualifications. In practical terms this means that the people who, against the views of their “legitimate representatives” and the “economic experts”, rejected the Spanish public debt or some part of the private debt related to housing as illegitimate, ought to be able to voice their opinion and to influence the public decision-making or, even to make their own decisions on their daily life in their neighbourhoods. 15M has not died: it suffered a mutation, into hundreds of smaller people’s assemblies and powerful social movements called “Mareas” (literally: Tides): the Green Marea for Public Education, the White Marea for Public Health Services, and the Plataforma against the evictions (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, PAH: Platform of people affected by the Mortgages) defending the right to housing.

ILR: As these cracks opened up beyond the Spanish State and emerged in the US with the Occupy movement, and as the ruling powers enacted a repressive response that treated democratic expression with clinical contempt, one of the most interesting responses to this event came in my view from Amador Fernández-Savater. He used the example of Michael Collins. To be precise, he used the character of Michael Collins in the Neil Jordan film of the same name. In Fernández-Savater’s view, the best response was to take a cue from Collins’s actions in the film: to act as if the Irish Republic was a reality. To combat the British Empire by ignoring it. To stop obeying their rules and invent our own. In short, that the best counter-attack was to create a new reality, hence the creation of ‘the Republic of the 99%’.

JDSE: Amador has developed a very compelling vision of the current Spanish movement, moving from his operaist theoretical roots. He makes a very interesting point in distinguishing (at least implicitly) two forms of revolt -both described in the Bible-, insurrection and exodus. Insurrection is the typical -often violent- overthrowing of a given regime by the masses, exodus is the fact of these masses leaving the country where a despot like Pharaoh or the Assyrian king oppresses them. Exodus means seeking another land in which to create the new nation, a promised land as Palestine in the Bible or North America for the Pilgrim Fathers. The kind of exodus Amador defends is an “on the spot” one where people under a given political rule just pretend to ignore it and give themselves new rules. I think this is possible in some limited locations and for some limited time. As long as a State and its State apparatuses exist, these will produce their typical effects of normalization and integration of atypical behaviours in the main social frame. They will, in other words, reproduce the prevailing relations of production. You cannot just ignore the State, not because there is such a thing as a transcendent personification of society as a non-divided subject, a Leviathan or its liberal surrogates. This is a completely imaginary entity produced, just like the smaller, individual subjects, by the ideological state apparatuses. But an imaginary reality is not uneffective, mostly when sustained by very material realities as the school, the police, the army, the market or, of course the family.

As long as all this continues to work in a more or less coordinated way, the “free areas” of internal exodus won’t be able to expand or even to survive long. Sooner or later, one has to neutralize or even reverse the functioning of these apparatuses, not by “taking power”, since power is not a substance but only a relation, but by occupying the space of representation, of government. This is the only way to prevent these apparatuses from destroying the free space of exodus. I think that just ignoring the fact of power, even if imaginary, is not enough: one has to occupy government. However, this occupation should be based on the dynamics of the “free territory” and subservient to it. It is completely absurd to impose a social change from top down as the socialist experiences tried to do. Even neo-liberal capitalism does not try to do so, and has long opted, not for direct command, but for indirect government of social cooperation, through the means of finance and debt. A “people’s” government should be in permanent negotiation with the social movements and its task would be more to neutralize the State apparatuses and the production of the image of the State resulting from the ideological apparatuses, than actually commanding. A good example would be what García Oliver, an anarcho-syndicalist Spanish leader, did first when becoming minister of Justice under the Republic: destroying all the police and legal files related to revolutionaries….

RMcA: From an Irish perspective, there is a bitter historical irony to Fernández-Savater’s suggestion. Michael Collins is the sanctified hero of the ruling party Fine Gael, which is a member of the European People’s Party, alongside the Francoist Partido Popular. The partitioned State that Collins helped establish was an authoritarian backwater that preserved many of the worst aspects of British rule, and built on them, with a panoply of repressive disciplinary institutions -slave labour laundries for women, industrial schools, censorship, and an economic regime that protected banking and major industrial interests whilst crushing and criminalising democratic aspirations. Today in Ireland there is much attention devoted to the idea of ‘renewing’ the Republic, or even creating a ‘Real Republic’. A great deal of this attention, however, merely concerns reforming the institutions of the capitalist State so as to curb its excesses.

JDSE: I think the historical figure of Collins was somewhat deformed and magnified in the film. He was presented as a heroic possibilist opposed to so many fanatics. I’m not so sure it’s the truth. Accepting Home Rule was accepting some form of continuity of the British colonial regime in Ireland, just as so many Arab or African leaders did after formal independence. The British State apparatuses as existing in Ireland were in no way neutralized, but they were used -by Irishmen!- for the same tasks they were originally designed for. When you go to Morocco -where I was born- you can perfectly recognize the installations of the colonial French or Spanish troops now occupied by Moroccans doing exactly the same and for the same social forces. Destroying a social or a colonial rule cannot be carried out from above. Liberation needs to take root in social movements and free spaces, and government should be subordinated to these. Otherwise a formal liberation or independence -or exodus- can always be reversed. Take for instance Venezuela: the main weakness in this radical transformation process is precisely that too much has been entrusted to State and leadership, and too little to grassroots organization. The result of this could be that if the opposition forces win the next election, the process could be reversed, all the State-managed commons could easily be privatized, which would not be the case it managed by communities and social movements. I think we should urgently explore the possibility of creating an entire non-State “public sector”. If you saw the last film by Ken Loach, The Spirit of 45, you can easily understand the rationale for this need.

ILR: In one of your blog posts, you stress that the greatest damage done to Spanish republicanism is the ‘confusion of the Republic with a form of State’. I think this applies to Irish republicanism as well. However, most European capitalist states declare themselves republics. Do you think the idea of the republic allows for the creation of a new reality beyond capitalism? And if so, in what circumstances?

JDSE: I think this confusion can be very damaging to the reasoning behind republicanism. A Republic is sometimes identified with the absence of a Monarch, which it does require, but this is far from sufficient. Spinoza says in his Political Treatise that the Dutch overthrew the Count of Holland but never established a Republic proper. In order to exist, a republic must be founded on something positive, and this is perfectly understood once you translate the Latin term ‘res publica‘ (the thing public) as the British classics of the XVIIth century did, as “Commonwealth” or better “Common-wealth”. There are two traditions of the Common-wealth, one which insists on the hyphen and on the “commons” and another one -without the hyphen- which insists on a form of government without a king. For short, let’s say that the hyphenated common-wealth is based on the commons and the non-hyphenated on property. The most common form of republic we have known in modern and contemporary Europe until today is the republic of the property owner. One should realize that the two kinds of republic are completely different. A proprietary commonwealth or republic has as its main task the regulation of conflict among private owners. Property creates competition and conflict, the “civil war” prevailing -according to Hobbes and the subsequent mainstream political tradition- in the “state of nature”. A power is needed to control conflict and avoid mutual destruction, and this is why individuals, acting as rational actors, establish a covenant creating thereby a sovereign, that is, a force which cannot be matched by any other particular force. The only basis for the political community is thus human hostility and the only common reality is the common source of fear and obedience created by the covenant. Very abruptly summarized this is -as Antonio Negri calls it- the “blessed line” (La linea benedetta) of European political thought.

But where there is benediction, there is also malediction, and, there is an underground line of political thought, the one represented by Machiavelli, Spinoza, the first Rousseau (the author of the Discourse On the Origin of Inequality, as opposed to the author of The Social Contract) and Karl Marx. This line founds the political commonwealth -not to be confused with the State- in material cooperation, not property. Once you start from cooperation, the question of the origin of the common-wealth becomes superfluous. Human life is based on cooperation, not in the exchange of property. This community always already exists, and this should not be deduced from an imaginary “state of nature”, rightly criticized by Rousseau as a mere legitimating projection onto the past of the current state of things.

Such a common-wealth is based on the commons, in some natural commons used by the community of producers, but also on the common knowledge and skills originating in productive cooperation. From this point of view, the State as a separate entity can be seen as an imagined transcendent entity produced by certain corrupt social relations of cooperation. The commons, in other words, communism as Marx conceived it, lies under every human society as its material ground. In some way all societies are communist, and every republic, even the republic based on property, is ultimately dependent on the productive commons, on the common-wealth in its original meaning. Therefore, I think this kind of republic of the commons, this original common-wealth, is not “a new reality beyond capitalism”, but a very originary reality, underlying even capitalism itself. In a certain way, neo-liberal, post-Fordist capitalism is perfectly aware of this -much more than mainstream leftists- since it bases its current model of exploitation not in the single worker organized by capital inside the factory, but on a self-organized network of social productive cooperation, self-organized by the workers. Of course, the neoliberal parlance would never say it this way, but would rather speak of “entrepreneurship” or “self-entrepreneurship”, but what Gary Becker and human capital theory describe is merely spontaneous human cooperation, captured in the networks of capital, mostly of financial capital and debt. Our future depends on our ability to transform productive self-organization in political freedom under a “hyphenated” Common-wealth.

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What I Think About The Reform Alliance

filthy hands

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.

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