If you click on the link to this Irish Examiner report and scroll down, you can see a picture of a middle-aged man standing in a pothole, wearing only underpants and wellies. I’m not reproducing the image here because I would prefer to give people thumbnails that made them want to read my posts, not scare them off.
According to the accompanying report, the man in question, who lives in Cavan, has been made enter a bond to keep the peace, meaning he must refrain from his habitual activity of painting the roads in areas where there are potholes.
The politician who fixes the road, and the citizen who votes for him, are figures of mirth for elite opinion in Ireland. They are eternal symbols of parish pump politics; a political system in which immediate local concerns inevitably take precedence over the wider, grander visions for society that could otherwise take shape, if it wasn’t for these gombeen politicians and their culchie acolytes.
Where this politics is going, we don’t need roads. The cost of repairs to cars and agricultural vehicles isn’t that important. Sure they’re only boggers, anyhow. This view is particularly popular among low-and-even-numbered Dublin suburbs with relatively decent public amenities and transport links.
I am not saying anyone who gets passionate about the problem of potholes to the point of stripping off to their underpants in public is heading in the right direction, politically speaking. Stripping down to your underpants in public is an effective way of getting a message across. But the content of that message is rarely anything other than: look, a man standing in his underpants. I think only a small segment of public opinion is likely to get behind such a man’s campaign.
Actually, I think the absurdity of a man standing in underpants and wellies serves to hide the fact there is something absurd about a man getting hit with charges for criminal damage for painting public roads whose condition poses a danger to vehicles and their occupants.
Apparently the road belongs to Cavan County Council, not the public. Would the man have taken up painting around potholes if the local council had been able to keep its roads in decent condition? Maybe he would. Maybe painting the roads and posing for photos in his underpants is the fullest expression of his civil passion, and potholes are simply the present object of that passion. On the other hand, he may have a shrewd understanding of what makes people in Cavan tick. I can’t say for sure.
Fixing in the roads is one of those issues, however, that is unlikely to divide public opinion. There is no vocal constituency in favour of letting the roads turn to shite. Capital investment by the State in transport infrastructure is an important matter for both IBEC and socialists. It just so happens that the former group thinks it should be paid for by cutting things like social welfare payments and school maintenance budgets, and that it should target those areas that maximise the profitability of dominant business interests.
The other day I had to contact a local election candidate to see what he would do about fixing the road. It was something that came up at a parent association meeting. The council had been unresponsive in fixing the road, and it poses a constant danger to children going to and from school. The council budget doesn’t stretch to fixing dangerous roads in good time. So in order to put pressure on the council, people felt it would be a good idea to get the local election candidates to demonstrate how good they were at getting the roads fixed: Pothole Idol.
That is how local politics works in Ireland, mostly. They have an inbuilt depoliticising dynamic. There are urgent practical issues to be addressed. You get the best tool available to fix it, and not, for example, the person best able to diagnose the suffocation of public finances under neoliberalism and the systematically engineered absence of local democracy.
I’m sure people would be quite interested in the broader social and economic context for why the road is full of holes, if they had the time and opportunity to discuss it. But the inevitable problem of getting the person best equipped –with the hands closest to the levers of power, and often with influence or strong links to local business groups- to fix local issues guarantees low participation in local politics, and zero discussion of conflicts of interest.
This reliance on the man with the ear of those in the council buildings militates against building local alliances to democratise local government. It’s difficult to see, in such a situation, how the local population might exercise greater control over local economic resources in order to improve the quality of life for the whole community.
It is too easily forgotten, if it was ever known in the first place, that local services and facilities and planning functions are part of the social wage, or, if you like, indirect wages.
What this situation favours, then, is not an ever-deepening mobilisation of local communities against forces of privatisation and primitive accumulation, in the interests of decent local services and facilities for a decent community life. Rather, it favours the spectacle of lone men standing in potholes in their underpants.