There are a few lines and dicta that always come in handy when surveying the political landscape from the point of view of the seasoned observer. “A week is a long time in politics”; “As Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution, it is too soon to tell”; “Expect the unexpected”. An “old reliable” in this regard is The Second Coming by WB Yeats, a poem about omnishambles. The most common lines to use in this poem are
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’
And then, after mention of the ‘blood-dimmed tide‘,
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
Generations of bores have interpreted these lines as a commentary on the political scene.
It goes like this: liberal parliamentary democracy is the only real bulwark we have against apocalypse. That requires cool heads, people who keep their wits about them, people who don’t care whether it’s a black cat or a white cat, as long as it catches mice.
Unfortunately, there are other people likely to get sucked into the vortex, and they are the kind of people who get het up about things. People like Joe Higgins and Hitler, the corresponding forces of the extreme left and right, located along the spectrum of liberal representative democracy.
Now, that is usually the spirit in which these lines are interpreted. But to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, though they keep on saying those lines, I do not think it means what they think it means.
You know the bit in the poem before the things falling apart, where the voice says ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer’?
I think this is an image intended to suggest that the ruling powers can no longer govern effectively.But also, in symbolic terms, that we can no longer exercise our will over the words and images that ought to be under our command.
The falconer, such as he is, ceases to exist, since his relation to the falcon is sundered.
Likewise, whatever it is we thought we were up to that point, whether subjects to a King or slaves of a master or citizens of a State, we are not anymore.
Reading The Second Coming in a democratic society, we might imagine the falconer as the demos: the popular potency that exercises control over political institutions, and we might imagine the falcon as the institutions themselves.
If we imagine things from the perspective of such a society, the problem, right now, is not that the falcon cannot hear the falconer. It can hear it very well. The problem is that the falcon is pecking the falconer to shreds.
That is, the Irish government and others no longer feel bound by the need to pay heed to the demands and needs of the population. It feels bound -or rather, comfortably hitched- to elite political institutions that bow only to the needs of capital.
The Second Coming is a poem of a situation where the meaning of things is in flux. So to fish out a couple of lines and offer an interpretation such as “This is how it always is! Always these hot-headed rabble rousers undermining order! What we need is responsible parliamentarians prepared to make sober and unpopular decisions when needs must!” is, how shall we say, sustained by far more passionate intensity than it might care to admit.
It is election day. Elections are the linchpin event in the regime of liberal parliamentary democracy.
There are lots of people defending this regime today in a way that is fraught with passionate intensity. They are saying things like “If you don’t vote today, you have no right to an opinion tomorrow”, and “remember, people died – DIED- for your right to vote!”.
Such passionate intensity prescribes the vote as the only solution for the ‘mere anarchy’ loosed upon people’s worlds in the forms of poverty, deprivation, unemployment, precarity, and fear. Fear of not being able to pay for prescriptions, fear of having your medical card removed, fear of not being able to cover the basic costs of a funeral.
The passionate intensity that denies people an opinion, or refuses to hear their complaint, on account of not voting, also denies people who are already unable to vote the possibility of full participation in political life.
There is a story in today’s Irish Independent about a nine months pregnant woman who was homeless and gave birth in the hospital and left her baby in care since there was no option open to her, and went back out onto the street. I am guessing she did not vote today. Well, she has no right to complain, according to the passionate avatars of democratic decency. Nor, for that matter, do the unpaid workers in the Paris Bakery, currently occupying the premises demanding over €55k in unpaid wages, if they don’t get round to voting today.
The passionate intensity that insists people died –DIED– for your right to vote, casts historical memory into oblivion. No-one ever died for the right to vote. To suggest that they did is empty demagoguery. Those who died in campaigns for voting rights did so mostly because they saw those rights as a step towards a more equal society.
Last week I read an article in the organ of respectable opinion in Ireland, written by someone who used to work for the Labour Party. It was about voter apathy. Why are voters so apathetic? It queried the low turnout in the referendum for expanding the Seanad franchise to all university graduates. How could this happen, the article asked, if this was less than two decades after Martin Luther King and the March on Washington?
It was as if voting, in this case to re-arrange the composition of an elite institution that automatically excluded the voices of the majority in Irish society as most people were not university graduates, was part of the same democratic tradition -of labour mobilisation and civil rights agitation- as Martin Luther King and many other radical figures. What planet etc.
In this example and others, the vote is sundered from its particular context, in which it was seen as a tool for the conquest of other rights and the establishment of some basic sense of equality. The main theme of the March on Washington was economic justice, not voting. Now, in the liberal imagination, the vote has become a fetish object, a golden calf. Kneel before Vote!
What we see then, in the unqualified exhortation to vote, in all its refusal to take into account the particular circumstances and possibilities that the vote entails, and even the consequences for voting for particular candidates as opposed to others (such that it is better to vote for the Christian Solidarity Party than not to vote at all), is the sundering of democracy from any sense of material equality. “Vote – or shut up!” becomes a sieg heil for a system where the strictest of separations between the political and the economic sphere is enforced.