Do Not Panic. Smash The Irish State

The writer Julian Gough has a piece in yesterday’s Irish Times, titled ‘The State has no right to take the names of Beckett and Joyce in vain’, which is scathing of the decision taken by the Irish Government to name the next two patrol ships after Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.

He has good reason to be scathing about what he describes as the ‘grotesque wrongness’ of appropriating the names of these writers for the purposes of ‘a branding exercise’, when this is a State with a history of suppressing and censoring writers so as to suppress the truth about the State.

Beckett and Joyce, among other writers, are now consecrated by the State as a sign of the essentially creative spirit of the Irish people. God knows how many meeting rooms in the Greater IFSC area bear the name of some figure off that Irish Writers poster, you know the one. It must be nice for partners in accountancy and law firms to think that they are following in the footsteps of Joyce and Beckett whilst figuring out ways of helping their clients to avoid contributing tax to public hospitals and schools. And of course both of them have been sanitised politically (as well as scatologically), both in terms of their literary work and as public figures.

The central character of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom spoke of ‘manufactured monsters for mutual murder, hideous hobgoblins produced by a horde of capitalistic lusts upon our prostituted labour. The poor man starves while they are grassing their royal mountain stags or shooting peasants and phartridges in their purblind pomp of pelf and power’. It isn’t the sort of thing you would see inscribed in the wall tiles of a top law firm toilet.

Samuel Beckett gave public support to the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, a stance that placed him at odds with the Irish political and religious establishment, which was fervently pro-Franco. He then played a heroic role in the French Resistance. It isn’t the sort of thing Phil Hogan would be big into.

For the Irish establishment to glom onto the literary achievements of these two artists and others by naming patrol ships after them is rather typical, really. It has been a constant feature of its history to expect others to prostitute their labour for the purposes of their ennoblement. And Julian Gough is quite right to point out the stark hypocrisy in the way the Irish State celebrates the achievements of people it could not bear to have around the place, but only once they have made it elsewhere. The rest of the time it just doesn’t want to know.

Where I differ with Gough, however, is the way he imagines that the State can somehow earn the right to use the names of Joyce or Beckett or whoever for its official purposes. I think there is a more general lack of understanding in Irish society about ‘the State’, which is strange, given the fact that the word seems to crop up in public political discourse in every second sentence.

Let us break it down a bit more: does the State have the right to do anything at all? To imagine that it does is to confer it some kind of political credibility. But should it have any? Gough rightly notes the lengths the State went to in order to suppress the kind of creative thought vital to a democratic society. And the way the State has established itself has been through institutions that rely on coercion, subordination and violence. So: why should the State get the right to do anything?

That is before we even consider the State as an instrument for class rule: as long as there is capitalism, the State will be capitalist and there will be wage slavery for the majority. Thus the right of the State, if such a thing can exist, is really the right of the ruling capitalist class.

As long as we imagine the State as somehow detached from capitalism, that it is somehow ‘our’ State –or as long as we ignore that the State we are talking about is a capitalist State- it may seem incongruous and inappropriate to us that the State should capitalise on Beckett or Joyce or whoever.

But why shouldn’t a capitalist State seek to maximise loyalty and legitimacy by identifying itself with the cultural achievements and history of those it calls its people, or to present the history of these people as indistinguishable from the history of the State? (Also, why shouldn’t it create the category of ‘diaspora‘, mentioned in Gough’s piece, in the service of internal racial logic, outward expulsion of surplus population, and inward flows of cash?)

This doesn’t mean we can have no objection when it does such a thing. On the contrary, such crass expropriation and cultural incorporation ought to be resisted at every turn. But not because you want to build a better capitalist State where the ruling class gives culture its appropriate place.

That is what bothers me about Gough’s suggestion that he would have no problem with Michael D. Higgins giving a speech about Joyce and Beckett and naming the ship because he is a far more appropriate figure than a gom like Enda Kenny. Of course Higgins is a far more cultivated and democratic figure. But for him to do such a thing, we do not need to imagine any seismic revolutionary shift, no explosion of popular democratic mobilisation; just a letter from the Cabinet inviting him to do so. For if Joyce and Beckett can be brandished as signs of the cultural refinement of the Irish State, so too can a poet ensconced in Áras an Uachtaráin delivering exquisite speeches on this and that whilst market forces run riot everywhere else.

What Gough’s piece shows, for all its scathing anger directed at the right targets, is how deep the stranglehold the Irish State has on our collective political imagination, how deeply we identify with it in our view of the world, as if it were ours, when in actual fact it is only ‘ours’ in so far as a group of slaves might speak of “our” master. According to this view of the world, history is not made by peoples, but through the State, with the State and in the State.

There is only one solution for this stranglehold. It must be smashed.

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