Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Populism Chronicles: Part One

The Populism Chronicles, part one of a continuing series.

Stephen Collins is crying for you, Argentina

Stephen Collins is crying for you, Argentina

Stephen Collins’s Inside Politics column in the Irish Times bore the headline ‘Coalition needs to resist easy rush to populism‘. ‘Populism’ in this context meant, variously;

  1. A refusal to follow the Troika stipulation to impose €2bn in cuts and taxes in the upcoming budget;
  2. Joan Burton, the Minister for Social Protection, referring to those stipulating this target as “austerity hawks”, which Collins believed ‘played straight into the hands of the opposition’.
  3. The use of the word “austerity”. According to Collins, “austerity” is mere ‘prudent budgetary discipline’, a means of ‘protecting the hard-won credibility of Ireland’s capacity to follow through on budgetary commitments’.

Against this ‘populism’, Collins counsels that Labour should take pride in its role in ‘prudent budgetary discipline’, and that Fine Gael should ‘present itself as the party that can best manage the economy’.

It seems a bit quixotic, Canute-like, even, at this stage to claim that the word “austerity” is populism. But what is giving in to windmills or the tide if not populism? “Austerity” as a name for a particular set of social and economic policies is well established in the public mind, and not just in Ireland. Using the word “austerity” does require some kind of subjective judgement, but so then does ‘prudent budgetary discipline’.

The “devastating effect on public health” of such policies, as recorded by The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills by Stuckler and Banju would not alter an iota if the full title of that book were ‘The Body Economic: Why Prudent Budgetary Discipline Kills’. One useful effect of the revised title, however, would be to expose the political interests operating behind the use of the term ‘prudence’.

The Body Populist: Why Irresponsible Book Titles Kill

The Body Populist: Why Irresponsible Book Titles Kill

Collins cited the ‘sad case’ of Argentina as a ‘salutary lesson about what inevitably follows when such irresponsible policies are followed, but that hasn’t deterred the “burn the bondholders” brigade from continuing to urge an end to “austerity” with all of the consequences that would follow from that.” Though he did not provide any evidence, or cite any consequences, other than the claim that it was sad.

Was the Argentinian government of the day irresponsible? In an Irish Times article a few days previous, Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’s chief financial correspondent, writing about Argentina’s default, said that ‘it had become impossible to service its public debt of $132 billion at tolerable cost.’

From Collins’s perspective, ‘responsibility’ equates to tolerance of what Wolf calls the intolerable. Neither writer mentions just who it is that has to do the tolerating. Collins, however, lauds the Labour Party for ‘protecting the most vulnerable in society from the worst ravages of recession’.

To understand further the political uses of ‘the most vulnerable’, you can read my Notes on ‘The Most Vulnerable’ from last year. Note that Collins does not see any ravages incurred by the imposition of ‘prudent budgetary discipline’, only the more natural phenomenon of ‘recession’.

What happened to ‘the most vulnerable’ in Argentina following its default? A recent study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean gives some clues. In a study last month titled ‘Pacts for Equality: Towards a Sustainable Future’, Argentina’s record over the last decade was subjected to detailed scrutiny alongside other countries. Argentina came second in the regional ranking for policies that reduced social inequality, including rises in the minimum wage, which rose by over 200% in real terms between 2003 and 2012.

Here is the unemployment rate in Argentina in the post-default years.

The Price of 'Irresponsibility': Unemployment in Argentina fails to respond to calls for prudence

The Price of ‘Irresponsibility’: Unemployment in Argentina fails to respond to calls for prudence

If only the ‘most vulnerable’ in Ireland were subjected to such irresponsible and imprudent populism.

Let us sum up. It is prudent to ignore the social costs of paying off public debt incurred in order to save the financial system. It is irresponsible to pursue policies that reduce social inequality. It is populist to say there is such a thing as austerity in Ireland.

Tomorrow: Terence Flanagan, Joan Burton, and Punitive Populism

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Defending Capitalism

'In the wake of the great financial crisis, few people are willing to put their heads above the parapet to defend a system that has generated so much misery.'

‘In the wake of the great financial crisis, few people are willing to put their heads above the parapet to defend a system that has generated so much misery.’

I left this comment on an article in today’s Irish Times by one of its finance correspondents, Chris Johns. The article is titled Taxing capital risks underinvestment in our future‘, with a standfirst that reads ‘Thomas Piketty’s proposals could effectively abolish capitalism‘ (yeah, right). It also has a picture of Piketty in a pose that recalls a Roman salute favoured by certain uniformed movements of the 30s and 40s, which I’m sure is mere coincidence.  Johns claims in the article that ‘War, disease and Malthusian population dynamics prevented the world from becoming better off. Capitalism changed all that.’

So, ‘capitalism isn’t working as it should’, but who decided that it should work in a certain way? Dunno about you, but no-one ever asked me.

Absent from the author’s view of capitalism are a few important considerations: 1) capitalism is nothing without human labour, 2) capitalism depends on class exploitation, and 3) capitalism operates on a planet with finite resources and subordinates the use of these resources to the extraction of profit, with disastrous ecological destruction as a consequence. These facts are no less real because the Berlin Wall was demolished. Sure, the habits and methods of the market economy have produced economic growth, but growth as an end in itself will ruin the planet.

The major political institutions that exist under capitalism exist to serve capitalism. So unless there’s a political and social revolution, capitalism will cause more war, more disease and more famine, not less (Also, despite the author’s claim that capitalism is pacifying, the bloodiest wars in human history have happened during the development of captialism with state-backed military technology the source of much of capitalism’s drive to innovate).

One thing Piketty’s work shows is that concentration of wealth in the hands of a few brings the concentration of decisive political power in the same hands (though you hardly need to be a genius to work that out). From the perspective of this ruling class, capitalism works as it should when they get rich and everyone else…well who cares?

Lastly, the notion that ‘few people are willing to put their heads above the parapet’ to defend capitalism is a very odd statement to make in a country that doesn’t even have a single left-wing newspaper and where universities want to turn every student into an entrepreneur.

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The Lurid and Misleading Tales of an Idiot



Yesterday I finished a piece for the Catholic Church and Ireland’s elites for the upcoming edition of Look Left. One of the things I touched on in it was the response of the Irish media, in particular the Irish Times, to the uproar over the Tuam mother-and-baby home revelations and the fact Ireland’s media appeared to do nothing about it. The response from those quarters was largely a matter of the stupid public getting all frenzied about a series of misleading headlines.

Worst of all the responses came from Stephen Collins. I didn’t have room to go into it in great detail in the piece, so I’m just going to sketch it out here.

In a piece titled ‘Sound and fury overwhelm rational political debate’* , Collins wrote of the ‘instant hysteria’ and ‘lurid and misleading reports’ that had ‘fanned a political storm at home’, and of the ‘spectacle of politicians jostling to gain political advantage from the sufferings of past generations’. The etymology of the word ‘hysteria’ did not trouble him in the context of an institution that turned mothers into indentured slaves.

He was referring specifically here to Mary Lou McDonald’s Dáil intervention, which he described as ‘trying to make political capital’ out of ‘one of the dark episodes in our past’. In my view, Mary Lou McDonald’s intervention was both measured and appropriate, given the wider significance of the issue. She called for the investigation into mother and baby institutions to include the Magdalen laundries, and criticised ‘The State, the churches and society’ for ‘acting illegitimately and broke every rule and boundary of decency, morality and the rule of the law’. Collins basically said, in a way that aped Enda Kenny’s responses to uncomfortable questions in the Dáil from SF, that the Provos had some nerve pretending they were concerned with humanity.

What is interesting to me here is the way Collins talks about politicians ‘trying to make political capital’ whilst oblivious to the fact -or else he couldn’t care less- that his own actions are geared towards making political capital for the established parties.

Collins’s hatred of democracy knows no bounds. The task of a public representative in parliament, in theory anyway, is to represent the views of her constituency in deliberations on legislation and government. It is the essence of parliamentary democracy. This is the idealised picture of democracy that Collins and the Irish Times present, not me.

However, from Collins’s perspective, any time a representative actually does express views that most likely correspond to those of her constituents, such expressions, provided they are not at once the views of wealthy and powerful people, must be denounced as ‘populism’: made in the selfish interest of raising one’s political profile (and perhaps even a devious ploy to set the scene for bombing and killing people at some stage in future).

I should stress that this is not just Collins’s perspective; it is also evident more widely in the Irish Times, as well as in RTÉ, and in media controlled by Denis O’Brien.

There is little, if any, countervailing view of politics and democracy ever presented in any of these outlets. To give another example, the piece by Fiach Kelly yesterday on Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, titled ‘Ming to take full MEP’s pay as ‘it will be useful for the revolution’’ sought to cast Ming as someone who ran for MEP in order to double his salary whilst at the same time passing himself off as some kind of rural Dave Spart.

Pablo Iglesias

Pablo Iglesias

It is worth comparing what is happening here with what is happening in Spain and the European Parliament at the minute. At a meeting last week, Podemos figurehead and newly elected MEP Pablo Iglesias was asked how he would treat the matter of ETA in the European Parliament. He said: “If I have the opportunity to speak in the European Parliament about ETA, I would say that it has caused enormous pain but that it also has a political explanation.” He went on: “if there was no political basis to it, there would be no way to understand why [Felipe] González and Aznar sat down to negotiate”. Moreover: “to speak of a problem and try to analyse it politically does not mean being in agreement with it.”

As a consequence, numerous victims’ groups (some of whom have close associations with the Partido Popular] released a statement accusing Iglesias of ‘whitewashing ETA’s history of terror and justifying murder, kidnapping and extorsion’, insisting that ‘we do not accept that terrorist violence has a political explanation, given that any political position can be advocated with the instruments guaranteed by the Constitution in a democratic State’.

At a press conference today, presenting him as European Left candidate for presidency of the European Parliament, Iglesias was repeatedly asked about the details of Podemos deputies refusing to avail of the full MEP salary and other privileges. One Spanish journalist noted that there had been significant popular approval for this position. The word he used was ‘algarabía‘, a word that has no direct translation into English, but in Spanish connotes a festive rabble led by unthinking passions. Pablo Iglesias objected to the use of the word and said that journalists should have more respect for the views of the public. It is important to note that word ‘algarabia‘ derives from ‘al‘arabíyya’, that is, Arabic. It is also a word in Spanish that means garbled or unintelligible speech.

The point of all this, at a time when the credibility of traditional political parties of rule is collapsing due to their support for the anti-democratic imposition of austerity policies and bank bailouts, is for political and media establishments to present politics as a serious business for serious gentlemen with smart haircuts and a good understanding of what the markets want from them, gentlemen with no inclination of giving in to the public’s quicksilver emotions and turgid ululations.

Outside of that, anyone else with political pretensions is an egomaniac, a chancer or a terrorist, and anyone who votes for them is too stupid to have their voice heard. Ultimately, it is a response to the flagging legitimacy of the violence of the sovereign.

Whilst I think the effect of this approach is wearing off a bit, I think it is still strong in the way it designates safe and unsafe areas for ordinary people to think politically and express political opinions. Few people like to think of themselves as a mere element of a raging and unthinking mob. In particular, when it comes to the matter of terrorism, very few people have the stomach for coming under the suspicion of harbouring murderous terrorist thoughts. They don’t want to be thought of as would-be murderers, quite understandably. Ultimately, for this method of propaganda to be neutralised, it needs to be tackled head-on, in open public confrontation and debate.


* ‘Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing’. — Macbeth. Another one for the bumper catalogue of seasoned observer cliché, along with Zhou Enlai, things falling apart, and the week as a long time in politics.

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Smearing The Guildford Four: A Reprise

: The Court of Appeal was not really what we were looking forward to, at any stage. It was a police investigation, it was documents that were found.. that had been marked blatantly not to be shown to the defence, that eventually released us, and the weight of a campaign that was gathering momentum as each year went by, and a campaign that was driven and had the motion of ordinary people. Ordinary people, and Gerry will be the first to say this, that it was the ordinary people in England, it was the ordinary people in Ireland, and at that time, the ordinary people who were involved were being called the fellow travellers of the men of violence.

Ó Mongáin: But that campaign on the outside, what kind of a morale boost was it for you inside the prison, that people hadn’t forgotten, there were still people out there, despite the establishment view, that believed in your innocence.

Hill: It gave us great fortitude. It gave us great fortitude to receive mail from all parts of the world. I received mail and so did Gerry, from, you know, all corners of the globe. So we knew that the story was out there. What we really needed was political leverage, and political leverage didn’t come until very, very late.

Ó Mongáin: Do you think..

Hill: And I’m not trying to score political points, but it has to be said that people in positions of power did very little for Gerry Conlon, for myself, for the Birmingham Six, for Judith Ward, for the Maguire family. They languished in prison during a period when everybody knew that we were completely and absolutely innocent. And when he’s being eulogised today, those people should look in the mirror and say: what did I do for those individuals?

Ó Mongáin: And do you mean governments..?

Hill: And you know, I’m not casting it on everyone because there were individuals, you know, who chipped away, who believed in us, but it was incredibly hard, as Seamus [Mallon] has just explained, because the British said it was a judicial matter and it wasn’t a matter of politics.

Ó Mongáin: And what about the Irish government, or as Seamus Mallon mentioned, indeed, the IRA?

Hill: Well, I’ve just explained that the Balcombe Street people came forward, you know, it’s not a time for scoring political points-

Ó Mongáin: Sure.

Hill: A man has died. What happened to myself and Gerry Conlon was a greater miscarriage of justice than those who died in Guildford and died in Woolwich and in Birmingham. We had absolutely nothing to do with that. And when we hear, “well what about the IRA?”, then no, it’s like, political point scoring. What do we say?

Ó Mongáin: Sure.

Hill: We were not involved in it. What do we say?

Transcript of excerpt of interview with Paul Hill, conducted with Colm Ó Mongáin, on RTÉ’s This Week, Sunday 22nd June.

Following this interview, the Irish Independent ran two stories in connection with it.

The first, uncredited appeared on its website, appeared thus:
The second, credited to Sam Griffin, was headed ‘Victim’s family enraged over ‘injustice’ comments by Hill’

It began:

The family of a teenager murdered in the Birmingham bombings has criticised remarks by Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four, who claimed that those wrongly imprisoned for bomb attacks in the UK suffered a greater injustice than those killed in the bombings.

It continued:

Family members of those killed in the atrocities yesterday criticised the remarks which they described as “deluded” and “thoughtless”.

It quoted Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson:

“The families of the innocent people, who died as a result of those dreadful bombs, must find these remarks nauseating and deeply hurtful,” he said

The article also quoted SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell:

“No injustice, no matter how severe of that nature, equates with taking somebody’s life.

“Loss of life, and depriving someone of their life, is the greatest injustice of all.”

Let’s look closely at what has happened here.

Paul Hill, anxious to make clear that the moment of Gerry Conlon’s death was not a time for political point scoring, nonetheless felt compelled to observe, in light of the eulogies for Gerry Conlon, that people in positions of power had shown little concern for the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, for Judith Ward, or for the Maguire family at a time when it was common knowledge that they were innocent. He refused to be drawn into commenting on the role of the IRA, other than to say that those IRA members captured at Balcombe Street had highlighted their innocence.

A moment’s reflection should make it obvious why Paul Hill might refuse to partake in what he described as “political point-scoring” when called upon to offer judgment on the IRA’s role. Given that Paul Hill was absolutely innocent of any involvement in the IRA bombings, and was victim of a miscarriage of British justice, why should he be called upon to comment at all on what the IRA did or did not do?

Moreover, why should he be expected to let those who either did nothing or were complicit in his continued incarceration, off the hook? Why should he do anything to serve the purposes of those who cast as “the fellow travellers of the men of violence” those ordinary people who tried to get him and Gerry Conlon and others freed ?

Chris Mullin describes what happened with the IRA in relation to the Guildford Four:

‘from the moment that the IRA unit arrested at Balcombe Street were first interviewed, everyone concerned – up to and including the Director of Public Prosecutions – knew there was something wrong with the Guildford and Woolwich convictions;

.. rather than face up to the possibility of a serious miscarriage of justice, they chose instead to doctor the evidence…

I submit that from soon after the arrest of the Balcombe Street IRA unit it is inescapable that those in authority, up to the highest level, realised that innocent people may have been convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich bombings and were anxious to avoid facing up to that possibility.’

‘Miscarriage of justice’ is a precise legal term. It refers to a formal judicial process, and here, in particular, to the conviction and continued imprisonment of the Guildford Four. In these precise terms, it is indisputable that what happened to Paul Hill and Gerry Conlon was indeed, as Paul Hill describes, “a greater miscarriage of justice than those who died in Guildford and died in Woolwich and in Birmingham”. If the expectation was for justice to be served for the victims of the bombings, this did not happen because the British establishment opted not to pursue the IRA unit who had already claimed responsibility, and instead opted to keep innocent people locked up. In their proper context, there is nothing “deluded”, “thoughtless”, “nauseating” or “deeply hurtful” about Paul Hill’s remarks.

For those who died, justice was not, nor can it ever be, served by the imprisonment of innocent men and women. But the effects of the process were a great deal worse for those innocents who were imprisoned: torture, prolonged incarceration, solitary confinement, -in the case of Gerry Conlon, the imprisonment and death of his father. These effects were compounded by a refusal on the part of the Irish political and media establishments to pay heed to their predicament or recognise their innocence.

What the Irish Independent has done with these reports is to decontextualise and twist Paul Hill’s remarks. It has conflated the formal judicial process by which justice was supposed to be served –hence ‘miscarriage of justice’- with a far broader and more abstract interpretation of justice, and sought out voices to decry Hill, based on this broader interpretation.

The effect –the intended effect– is that Hill appears to say that those who were killed in the bombings were more deserving of what happened to them than what happened to him and Gerry Conlon, that they were not entirely innocent whereas he and Conlon were.

Hill is made appear as one of the stock “fellow travellers of the men of violence” that Ireland’s media used against the Guildford Four, and have used ever since as a control mechanism.

If you take journalism seriously, you might be inclined to believe that journalists have an ethical obligation to make sure that they are capturing the precise sense of what a person is saying. You might be inclined to believe, furthermore, that this ethical obligation is all the more binding when dealing with a person who has been coerced into making false confessions by the police -at gunpoint- and jailed for 15 years as a result.

Moreover, you might see this obligation as particularly important when the remarks are made in the context of the death of someone who was allowed to languish in prison, and whose life was probably cut short as a consequence, precisely because Irish political and media establishments did not take his claims seriously, and smeared those who did.

Well, any such inclinations you might have count for nothing when it comes to the Irish Independent’s drive to police what ordinary people think and protect the powerful from criticism.


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Fresh Eyes, Expired Perspectives

This is a version of a comment I left on the article in today’s Irish Times by Kathy Sheridan, which is titled ‘Casting a fresh eye on the Tuam controversy

I agree with Kathy Sheridan that it is all too convenient to cast the Catholic Church as the fons et origo of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby home. She is right to draw attention to the fact that such institutions were part of a broader landscape of misogyny, squalor and degradation, and that Ireland was not the only country in which such things happened. She is also right to draw attention to the economic considerations that sustained what she describes as Ireland’s ‘moral dustbins’.

However, it is also all too convenient to lump together all expressions of scepticism of the Irish Times’s approach to these matters as a kneejerk response. As other Irish Times contributors have rightly noted, in echo of what others are saying, the Tuam mother-and-baby re-discovery prompts us to look at how an oppressive past continues to inform oppression in the present.

What is more, Ireland’s contemporary institutions -political, legal, educational, health- are the product of this oppressive past. Is it reasonable to expect that the Irish Times, which has a track record of identifying with the priorities of Ireland’s power elites, can subject this issue to the fullest possible examination?

How, for example, given that Kathy Sheridan rightly highlights the economic dimension to this oppression, would you expect an institution that continues to present austerity policies as the common sense course of action -despite its patently obvious and wide-ranging destructive effects- to examine the social, economic and political factors behind things like the Tuam mother-and-baby home?

It seems all the more unwise to expect the Irish Times to examine these issues in their fullest meaning given that it habitually resorts to a differentiation between the views of the uninformed, fickle and easily inflamed public on the one hand, and the views of a coolly rational and far-sighted technocratic elite on the other, a trait unfortunately reproduced in this otherwise insightful article

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Harbison: The Long TED Talk of the Soul

I was only dimly aware of Niall Harbison until a day or so ago. I knew he occasionally wrote reviews of restaurants that made hideous remarks about working class Dubliners, with terms such as “knacker” and “Knackeragua”, and that was pretty much it. I don’t know much more about him now, either.

Out of curiosity I looked him up this morning. I found this YouTube video. It is interesting. In it, he tells the audience about his views on things.

Mindful of his remarks about “knackers”, I was struck by this phrase:

“I come from a background where I actually got kicked out of two different schools. So I couldn’t concentrate, by the age of 16 there was no more schools that would have me, I guess now you’d probably call it ADHD or something like that, but I didn’t actually know at the time what it was. It actually turned out that I was entrepreneurial and that I was somebody who could go and start businesses”

It turned out he was entrepreneurial. This was something he realised at some point, and it was a moment of liberation. It sounds a bit like when people find out that they have an undiagnosed condition, and knowledge of the condition allows them to see things clearly and live differently, whereas previously they thought there was something wrong with them.

The problem is, being entrepreneurial isn’t a pre-existing condition, or a suppressed truth. There’s no such thing as a born entrepreneur. There are, however, lots of people who believe they were born to be entrepreneurs. This is one thing Niall Harbison has in common with Sean Quinn, who claims he was a wealth creator since the moment he was born. We can trace this line of thought back at least to Adam Smith. Surveying the birth of capitalism, Smith reasoned that human beings were born with a natural propensity to truck and barter (if this is true, there must be something wrong with me).

In his talk, Harbison sees fear as what prevents us from enjoying work and, by extension, given that we spend decades working, from enjoying life. He identifies the education system as something that forces us to conform to a particular path. It puts us on a conveyor belt towards university and beyond, into a workplace where we seem incapable of doing anything but conform. In his own experience, he was called stupid and dumb at school by teachers and others. This appears to have had a lasting effect on him.

I found myself agreeing with this description. What is more, getting called stupid and dumb by teachers is traumatic, and where you have education systems that inflict such things, children are damaged, and societies are damaged as a consequence. So, I felt sorry for him at that point.

The problem is, Harbison’s understanding of the conformity and stigmas imposed by the education system did not turn into a critical understanding of why the education system does this. He doesn’t see the education system as serving a particular purpose in the organisation of a particular kind of society. Moreover, his apparent anti-authoritarianism is girded by an accomplished ignorance of how society actually works. He seems to think ‘entrepreneurialism’ is a natural quality, when in fact there are certain things needed for it to exist: money, banks, legal and political institutions, for starters. To say you are born an entrepreneur, then, is like saying you were born to watch Eastenders tonight.

Of course, this isn’t really Harbison’s fault: the contemporary cult of the entrepreneur is by and large a product of neoliberalism’s systematic dismantling of social institutions and structures that foster collective solidarity. If there are so many entrepreneurs around these days, it is largely because we are supposed to think we are on our own. For all the neophilia of self-professed entrepreneurs and their trials at the hands of deadening bureaucracies, there is more than a dreary echo, in their personal myth-making, of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, where Hayek says ‘our young men’ prefer ‘the safe, salaried position to the risk of enterprise after they have heard from their earliest youth the former described as the superior, more unselfish and disinterested occupation’. (Hayek’s own anti-authoritarianism is somewhat undermined by the way he both inspired and supported Pinochet’s Chile)

Harbison sees the world of work as a potential world of fun, but a world that is frustrated by the dead hand of archaic institutions, like the school and the corporation. In his view, it doesn’t matter what work you do; the question is how you approach that work. For him, “money is a very, very false metric” in this regard, and “people are ruined by money”. Well that’s easy for him to say as he shows us photos of luxury yachts and island resorts that cost shitloads of money. The poorer you are, the more you worry about money. Like Oscar Wilde said, ‘there is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else.’

What is more, Harbison’s view of work is devoid of any consideration that work sucks bigtime for a great many people not because they have the wrong attitude, but because the particular kind of work is boring, humiliating, and deadening. I have worked cleaning toilets. There is no tune you can whistle that turns it into lasting fun. And as long as there are people and toilets, someone will have to clean those toilets. But whilst Harbison mentions work on building sites, he is concerned mainly with people who work in offices. This is probably a good thing too. Because if his injunction to have fun at work were extended to everyone, and everyone were to take this injunction seriously, society as it is would probably collapse completely into a Hobbesian war of all against all in a matter of days. Bosses would have extra fun preying on their employees’ fear of losing their job, teachers would humiliate children in their classes with a sense of relish, judges would laugh as they handed out maximum sentences for minor offences, 999 operators would hang up on callers for the laugh, prison guards would stamp on prisoner heads with delight, and so on. Sure it’s only a bit of fun!

Harbison starts off with an image of the baby learning to walk, who takes risks, and who might “smash his face in”, but in the end, conquers his fear and learns to walk. Anyone who has been around babies will know that this is a very partial telling of the story. Babies have to be clothed and fed and cared for, and when they fall down they often need someone to pick them up and tell them that they’ll be ok, and that they shouldn’t be afraid. No baby ever learns to walk all by itself, and you have to wonder why the image is so convincing to Harbison. No baby could ever learn to walk unless it received at least some kind of care and nurture.

If a baby takes risks, as it will have to it does knowing it will still be looked after, and maybe picked up, if need be. The vision of the entrepreneurial capitalist society, on the other hand, entails in practice the stripping away of every form of social solidarity that allows people the freedom to develop fully as socially conscious and creative human beings, and subjecting vast swathes of the population to the risks of unemployment, illness and despair. When you are enthralled by such a vision, as Harbison is, you look upon rich people as born to be rich -sorry, successful entrepreneurs- whereas when anyone else comes into the line of sight and interrupts that vision and disrupts its appetites, they appear as little more than a stain to be wiped out.


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Some brief notes on ‘Independents and Others’


Graph based on analysis by Adrian Kavanagh at, 12th June 2014.

As a category for understanding electoral preferences, ‘Independents and Others’ only works in relation to major parties that already exist and are more or less established. This means continuing to look at electoral preferences -and the voters behind them- through a settled and established prism.

But this isn’t the only way of classifying electoral preferences. You could look at it in terms of voting for candidates with hair, or with more than three vowels in their surname, or whose election posters contained only capital letters, and so on.

When you put ‘Independents and Others’ alongside other recognised parties, you are looking at the data in a certain way, one that emphasises the history and fortune of entities familiar as parties. Nothing necessarily wrong with this; it’s one particular way of seeing things.

But seeing things this way leads to the highlighting of certain tendencies at the expense of others. For example, many people whose candidate or party of choice falls under the ‘Independents and Others’ grouping might complain, with justification, that their political priorities, the political content of what they are expressing by opting to vote for someone who falls under ‘Independents and Others’, is hidden from view.

As a consequence, when it comes to public discussion of what is going on, our perspective is focused on what developments mean for the established state of things, rather than what different kinds of political thinking are expressed in the different voting pattern.

(I should also point out that regardless of a considerable ‘Independents and Others’ component, monitoring electoral preferences over time gives you no insight into how much confidence people have in the political system to address their concerns and needs)

Clearly ‘Independents and Others’ is a very bad place to end if you’re going to talk about the different kinds of political thinking that might be expressed by people whose vote winds up in this grouping. But this is often where it both begins and ends, especially in mainstream discourse.

Such votes then appear as a ‘protest vote’ or a vote against the major parties, an act that is purely reactive rather than conscious political expressions of this or that kind. We might also tend to imagine a vote for ‘Independent’ as a vote for something seen in the Dáil Technical Group (itself represented in media as a quasi-party), and interpret it on the whole as a vote for Shane Ross, or Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, or Catherine Murphy -or an amalgam of those three- when there may be a great deal more to it than that, and it’s unlikely that anyone voted for anyone with the idea of such an amalgam in their head. (At least you’d hope not, but you never know).

Not only does the ‘Others’ bit deprive the People Before Profit Alliance and the Anti-Austerity Alliance of any prominence, but it also relegates their radical opposition to austerity to a matter of political unimportance. And in so far as these groups ever get named in the media as part of this ‘Others’ and as part of this broader ‘Independents and Others’ category, there is an inevitable suggestion that they are, like other electoral options, mere effects of the established parties, rather than political actors in their own right. Hence we are led in the direction that there is no need to pay any heed to what they are saying, because what really matters is how well the established parties articulate their case, not what smaller groupings have to say.

To be clear, I am not saying that grouping electoral preferences in this way is completely useless. Actually, it tells us interesting things, such as the growing discredit of the established parties. We might conclude that this is a consequence of support for austerity policies and the fact of implementing them in government, the inevitable result of stripping away public services, introducing measures to drive down wages, privileging the financial sector whilst depriving other people of the basic means for a decent existence. That seems to me a reasonable enough conclusion, as far as it goes.

But what I’d like to know, and what such data does not tell me, is whether voting for an ‘Independent’ is a different way of voting. Is it, for example, a way of voting against being represented by a party machine? Is it a way of voting for greater democratic accountability? Is it a way of voting for people you identify with precisely because you do not perceive them as machine politicians but rather people you can rely upon?

As I have noted previously, a lot of these so-called ‘Independents’ are basically Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in disguise. See here for more details. However, that doesn’t mean people are voting for them because they are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in disguise. Similarly when people say to a pollster they are voting ‘Independent’ (assuming they did not mention any particular candidate that was classified as ‘independent’ post facto) that does not mean they were going to vote for any ‘Independent’ candidate willy-nilly; I imagine lots of them voted for independent candidates who showed particular traits and articulated their position in certain ways.

There are so many questions that will never even get asked through this perspective of Established Parties vs. Independent & Others, and so many perspectives that will simply be ignored. How much of an overlap is there between the reasons people had for voting PB4P or AAA, and people voting for other ‘Independents’? I am just guessing here, but I reckon a lot of people voted PB4P and AAA not because they are drawn towards the SWP or the SP as such, but rather because they saw the names and profiles of people with whom they could identify, not people who mean (big) business.

To sum up, rather hastily: I think the ‘Independents and Others’ category obscures a lot more than it illuminates, and the political effects of looking at things in this way are far from neutral. It may be tempting to look upon the votes in the category as ‘anti-establishment’, but you can have different kinds of anti-establishment vote.
There are lots of things worth investigating here, but one in particular is how much -if at all- people are voting in ways that they believe allow them to maximise their democratic agency, rather than simply allowing themselves to be represented by someone else. If there is such a thing, you have the nucleus of possibility for a new democratic common sense. I am wondering about this not because I want to classify certain voters in a better way, or because I am hoping certain people are this way inclined rather than that; it’s more like sifting through a pan full of sludge for a glint of gold.

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