Monthly Archives: June 2014

Does The Irish Times know what ‘innately’ means?

Voters may be disillusioned, but they are innately conservative.

Thus declares an editorial in today’s Irish Times. ‘Innate’ means you are born with it. It means that the thing you have is not contingent on life experiences or broader social or political conditions.

In other places, you would have to be a moron to make a serious claim that voters are ‘innately conservative’, because, where social and political conditions change, and where people have different life experiences, voters express different preferences.

More people voted for left wing parties at the last election in Ireland than in previous elections. Dublin in particular saw a rise in the left wing vote. If it is true that Irish voters are ‘innately conservative’, then the Irish Times is saying that it is not natural for Irish people to vote for left wing parties, because voting for things to stay the same is part of Irish people’s basic nature.

So, if you are Irish and you vote for things to change, you are behaving unnaturally, according to the Irish Times. You are, quite literally, a deviant.

ADDS: A correspondent writes:Maybe the IT meant that if voters weren’t so innately conservative – and had any sense – they’d have voted even further left.

ADDS: Another correspondent writes: Are left wing voters sinister deviants then, or is that a tautology?’

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Establishing The Facts on The State: A Brief Note

What is the difference between the State and the Church in Ireland? This is one of the questions that concerned the Magdalen Laundries investigation that was led by Martin McAleese. The main object of that investigation was ‘to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries’.

The word ‘establish‘, and the word ‘State‘ both have the same origin: the st- root that also appears in ‘institution’ and ‘stability’.

In order to establish the facts, it was first necessary to establish the meaning of “the State”. So the Committee adopted

‘the full meaning of “the State”, to refer to a body, whatever its legal form, which is or was responsible for provision of a public service under the control of the State and with special powers for that purpose. This encompassed not only Government Departments but a whole range of bodies, agencies and organisations, detailed throughout the Report.’

No meaning of any word can be conclusively nailed down, because the meaning of a word depends on the particular context in which it is used, and the purpose for which it is used. In this case, this is the State establishing the meaning of the State, and then applying this State-defined meaning in order to identify State involvement.

We might discern a problem here: in establishing the facts of State involvement, the State -through the body it has commissioned to conduct the investigation- is also establishing -in the strong sense of the word- what the State is, and it is shaping its own conclusions on those terms from the outset.

As a consequence, how the public perceives the State, once the report is completed and reported on, will be shaped by the meaning established by the document.

Is this good enough? You might say, well, you have to start somewhere. But should it be from here?

What we see in this particular occasion is an interpretation of a word that is necessarily and inevitably political, applied to an investigation about the role of institutions that are also political.

In one of his writings, Eduardo Galeano cites an African proverb: until lions have their own historians, the histories of the hunt will go on being written by the hunters.

Should a lion trust the definition of a lion as laid down by a hunter?


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The Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home and Ireland’s Unknown Knowns

"Give us your children and we will shape their souls, they said, but it was their bodies they desired"

“Give us your children and we will shape their souls, they said, but it was their bodies they desired”

Once again, light has been cast upon the dark deeds of the Catholic Church, and once again, people are declaring openly that they feel ashamed. The sense of shame is heightened, when not caused, by the fact so little media attention has been devoted to the matter in Ireland, by comparison with the attention it has received elsewhere. I doubt that shame is the predominant feeling, but I can’t know for sure, because lots of people who feel ashamed about things say nothing. It isn’t even, as far as I can see, the predominant voiced reaction either, but it is there, and I am going to start there.

Is shame a natural reaction to what the writer of this excellent piece correctly describes as the ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘796 tiny bodies, squashed into a septic tank’, at the site of the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam?

I don’t think it’s a natural reaction at all, but a reaction formed of habit. I think the reaction derives from the same sense of shame that consigned these children to their short lives of neglect and suffering, and that turned their stigmatised mothers into indentured slaves.

Shame has an isolating, paralysing effect. It emanates from the dread of being in the disapproving gaze of someone else. That someone else may be a vigilant God, or your parents, or your family, the rest of your community or congregation, or even a disapproving and demanding version of yourself.

When people say they feel ashamed at what certain people in the Catholic Church did, or at what certain others failed to do, who is it they feel looking at them? Is it the 796 babies and infants they never met? I find that hard to believe. In fact, I think that when people say vague things like “I am ashamed my country did this”, and leave it at that, they are autonomously reproducing the same kind of moral policing that used to issue directly from the pulpit.

No-one can do anything to ease the suffering of the eight hundred dead children, because they are already dead. People can berate others for failing to say anything, for failing to act at the time, when they knew full well what was going on, but opted to un-know it. Many of those people are safely dead too. And if there were others who tried to do something, however small, well, maybe they are dead too. Or maybe they are too damaged from the experience to tell anyone what happened.

There is a priest in the area where that “home” was located who is suggesting that these were different times. He is saying that “we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens”.

On one level, this is utterly ridiculous. Not only because most of us are unlikely to ever observe the world through the same lens as a Catholic priest, but also because it isn’t an ancient and indecipherable civilisation we’re talking about here. It is people who were alive at the same time and in the same country as other people we know. And we know from these people that gross cruelty and neglect towards children was seen as wrong.

On another level, though, maybe he has a point. We don’t really know that much about what prevented people from doing anything about it. Did they just accept with a shrug that such cruelty, however awful, was just part of the way things were and that there wasn’t much that could be done about it? It isn’t so long ago, after all that people thought it was normal to beat and brutalise children in school in front of their classmates, and that what is more, it never did them a bit of harm.

There are lots of things that we know, but we can opt to un-know. We know, for example, of children living in Direct Provision living in utter misery. We know there are 375,000 children officially living in deprivation. We know that there are very sick children with essential medical needs whose treatment can be withdrawn on our behalf on little more than a bureaucratic whim, and that the powerful private healthcare industry in Ireland, including the Bon Secours private hospital network is the product of the Catholic Church. We know that the State offers tax breaks to rich executives in the finance industry so they can send their children to the exclusive fee-paying schools -often run by Catholic religious orders- of Ireland’s elite whilst other children have their Special Needs Assistants withdrawn. We know that parents are compelled to place their children in crèches with names such as Little Harvard, where they pay extortionate sums of money only to have their children subjected to violent abuse and degradation, all in the interest of profit. Are these things just part of the way things are too? Is there not much that can be done about it?

Well? The word ‘infant’ means ‘unable to speak’. What prevents those of us who are able to speak from doing something about it? Why do so many people use their powers of speech to enforce the sense that the lethal effects of policies and disciplinary bureaucracies that serve the rich and shred people’s rights are just part of the way things are? Why do so many people go about telling others to keep their heads down, and berate them for being “emotional” or “immature” if they complain? It isn’t as if there are still clerics dressed in black roaming the land, ready to have you locked away and beaten up for deviating from God’s path. Are there?

True enough, Ireland’s media establishment –which is closely intertwined with structures of financial, economic and political power- has devoted little attention to these dark secrets to date. When it does give the matter more focus, as it eventually will, given the strength of public feeling, it will do so in a way that minimises the impact to the aforementioned structures. It will shield these structures from critical scrutiny, just as it always does. Some fitting and tasteful tombstone will be forged, so that the past can get a decent burial. One reporter at the public broadcaster yesterday divulged –does he have their ear?- that the markets will be pleased that Michael Noonan the steady operator would be remaining in situ after his recent treatment for a cancerous growth. Why would institutions that exalt public “maturity”, that is, submission to the rule of the markets, day in day out, be inclined to care about poor dead children? This “maturity” at its most basic, when it takes on the intended form of self-policing, means betraying the child you once were, and getting with the programme.

I have a question for you. What kind of radical transformation of society would be needed so that what is kept uppermost in the public mind by media institutions is not what ‘the markets’ think, but what will happen to the 375,000 children living in deprivation?

This kind of question stems from precisely the kind of thought that is treated as the highest form of immaturity. For all the cant –and wilful misreading, given that the Proclamation’s remarks about children concern citizens of a democratic country, not children per se- in relation to ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, betrayal of children is considered one of the highest public virtues in Ireland, from the perspective of power.

That brings me back to the matter of shame. Shame, as I said above, is by no means a natural reaction to anything. It comes from habit fostered by particular social structures, and, perhaps principally among these in Ireland, the Catholic Church.

But there are other habits –ways of thinking, ways of reacting when confronted with some apparently august authority- that endure and thrive too. If we are genuinely interested in the welfare of children, we ought to start daring to think and speak about the ways we are imprisoned by those habits, the institutions that still shape them, and, crucially, how to break them.


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A new opportunity for internationalism

This was published before the stunning results won by Podemos in the recent elections, but it is still of great relevance. It is by Miguel Urbán, who is on the editorial board of the Viento Sur magazine (and also, as I understand it, a participant in Podemos, though the article was not written in that capacity).


A new opportunity for internationalism (Público, 20th May)

The forthcoming elections to the European parliament are a good opportunity for the construction of an internationalist discourse and practice, which are urgent for setting out a credible alternative to policies of cuts and austerity.

Setting out emancipatory politics from an internationalist point of view has become a necessity for those of us who aspire to change things. It is not merely an ethical stance, though we should not let go of the moral strength provided by solidarity with other peoples who appear far away but who are confronting problems that are more and more similar to our own. Feeling that there are other people who are struggling for the same cause as us is a good antidote against hatreds and the temptation to get confused as to who the enemy is.

Internationalism, as an ethical construction, is a strategic weapon that places struggles in terms of exploiters and the exploited. It is a great remedy for xenophobia and oppresive nationalisms. The loss of this horizon has led to major tragedies throughout history. This year will mark 100 years since the start of World War I and it is worth recalling one of the facts that allowed that horrible butchery to take place: the fact that social democracy abandoned internationalist stances, placing fidelity to the national ruling classes over alliances between the different peoples of Europe. Now, at the moment when the powerful have unleashed a war of the economic kind against the public, based on social devastation, we must bear in mind where forgetting our common interests leads.

I mention that it is not simply an ethical option to highlight that it is also a material necessity. The process of European integration has generated structural relations, both on an economic and a political level, that mean that the struggle in one isolated country against these policies of impoverishment is destined to fail. Syriza lays this out well when it speaks of breaking with the Troika without giving up on expanding change throughout Europe. Is it not the case that the current model of European institutions drives a process whereby the countries of the centre plunder those of the south whilst pushing all workers into precarity, independent of their nationality? This anti-democratic Europe, governed by what Perry Anderson in his magnificent book The Old New World calls regulationist institutions (no-one elected them but they set the limits on what can and cannot be done) has become a battlefield, a battle that takes place in different spheres and at many levels, a battle between those below and those on top.

What is clear is that it will fall to one country to be the first to break with the policies imposed by the EU. Let’s take a very likely example: the case of Greece. If Syriza wins the elections and can opt to govern, it will confront two challenges. On the one hand, winning elections does not mean holding power. Syriza would confront internal pressure, from sectors of the State apparatus and the ruling classes, who would resist any change. The only solution that would resolve this problem is a self-organised and conscious people that actively supports the government. So a businessman closes a factory? Then workers will have to take charge of it with the support of the State. In fact, similar cases have already occurred in Greece, but lamentably, the Troika government prefers businesses to be to providing support for workers.

The other problem would be the attempts by the European institutions and neoliberal governments to suffocate the Greek economy from the outside. The Troika and the EU would do all in their power to show that no other kind of politics can take place in Europe, that we are condemned to austerity and impoverishment. The government of Greece would no longer be an exclusively Greek phenomenon, but would rather be another European battlefield. If such a government were defeated, the idea that another model is possible would suffer a heavy defeat, but if a government along these lines were to resist, it would be an example to be followed by other peoples, opening up a real alternative for other kinds of policies. Syriza moreover has the historic responsibility of not betraying the expectations for change that its arrival in government would bring. Another disappointment would dramatically open the doors to the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn.

The only solution would be to show solidarity with a government of this kind from all corners of Europe, by exerting pressure upon the different countries and different institutions of Europe. If we want to win, it is urgent for us to start building links between the different resistances that are coming to the fore in Europe. The European elections are a good opportunity for this, because “if you can’t do it alone, you can do it with friends”.

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The Spectre Haunting The Spanish Monarchy


Perhaps a spectre is haunting the Spanish monarchy. At a summit in 2007, Juan Carlos de Borbón, King of Spain, the head of state hand-picked by dictator Francisco Franco as his successor, was moved to outburst by remarks by the President Hugo Chávez, the democratically elected head of state of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

“¿Por qué no te callas? (Why don’t you shut up?)”, the King spat, at the moment Chávez was recalling the attempted coup d’état that sought to depose him in 2002.

Chávez had been referring to the role played by the Spanish government in supporting the coup, and in particular to the role of its prime minister at the time, José María Aznar, whom he referred to as a fascist.

Such plain speaking from a dark-skinned Chávez was intolerable to the blue-blooded Bourbon king, no stranger to supporting right-wing coups himself.

His monarchy, at the time, rested on enough public acceptance in Spain to reassure him that this uppity loudmouth from the former imperial territory had no right to be speaking back about one of his men, that diplomatic reserve had its limits, and that the Indian needed to be put in his place.

Chávez was simply telling the truth. Aznar was -and is- a fascist, by any reasonable measure. The contempt Aznar displayed for democratic norms -sending the country to war despite overwhelming public opposition; lying brazenly about the authorship of terrorist attacks in order to win elections; support for Israeli barbarism; public declarations that Muslims should “apologise to him for Andalusia” (thereby justifying ethnic cleansing)- all showed a consistent trajectory from his past as a student Falangist, where he was part of an organisation that actually opposed the Franco regime on the grounds that the dictatorship had not gone far enough in imposing a national corporate system. The support lent by Aznar’s government for the overthrow of a democratically elected president, and the latter’s replacement by a business leader who would liquidate the rights and gains won by ordinary Venezuelans through the Chávez government, was just one more mundane example.

In Spain, the King’s outburst received mostly favourable media attention. Here was the down-to-earth monarch, laying down the law to a character who was variously portrayed as a dictator, a clown, or a dangerous red, protecting the honour of Spanish democracy and rule of law. For many in the ruling Socialist Party too, ever obsequious towards the monarchy, Chávez was a totem for contempt and condescension, not respect.

Hello! magazine originated in Spain during the early years of Franco’s regime. The photos of the rich and famous, and often just the rich, are presented as part of a world in which monarchy, and deference to royal titles, are part of the normal order of things. At the centre of this world of fawning and ceaseless gossip -which today extends into a panoply of magazine titles and interminable TV panel shows where pseudo-journalists pore over every minute and brain-crushing detail- sit the Bourbons, their triumphs exalted and their disasters hidden beneath a lavish, worshipful, photoshopped gloss. The Bourbons’ importance, beyond the constitutional role designed to maintain continuity with Francoism, consists of maintaining deference towards the rich, towards the people who run things.

The other day I watched part of one such panel show. It was presented by one such pseudo-journalist, a woman called Ana Rosa Quintana, with a long and distinguished career in fawning over rich people, and also the author of a novel that plagiarised large chunks of Danielle Steele verbatim. The guest was Iñigo Errejón, the campaign manager for Podemos, who was invited to explain what Podemos was about, and its recent success in the European elections. The other panelists made repeated references to what a Partido Popular strategist had called the ‘friki’ dimension, a word -originating from ‘freak’ in English- carrying all kinds of connotations of smelly hippies, drug-addled airheads, the scum of society: the typical mating call of authoritarians and fascists the world over.

Well, as it turned out, Errejón was by far the most sober, composed and even strait-laced contributor, explaining the Podemos phenomenon whilst his bouffant and blow-dried co-panelists sought to cast Podemos as mad-eyed reds, focusing, of course, on the links to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela, and the Bolivarian Revolution, as if it were still 2007. As Guillem Martínez notes, surveying such scenes on the whole, ‘the media Goliath was so unable to explain the Podemos phenomenon that it used the word Venezuela so much it would come as a surprise if the next Miss Venezuela did not turn out to be a sympathiser of Podemos’.

But 2007 is, in certain senses, a very long time ago. That was back before the imposition of brutal austerity measures, back before the explosion of the 15M, and the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, before the Mareas, and before the monarchy could be confident of walking around in public without the sound of boos. And it before Podemos, whose spokespersons, drawing on the example of Hugo Chávez in audacious, confrontational public oratory that drew a sharp contrast between a they– the caste of kleptocrats whose figurehead and inspiration was the billionaire King- and a we -the decent majority compelled to work for a living and who, as former Chávez adviser and Podemos strategist Juan Carlos Monedero puts it, do not wish to escape being a victim of neoliberalism by becoming its executioner. It was before the moment when the penny dropped for so many that it was time for this criminal caste to go.

Spain’s real elites are a lot more attuned to what is happening in the streets and squares and bars and homes than your average pseudo-journalist, whose job is to present business as normal, might suggest. That is why they have made the move to replace Juan Carlos the elephant slayer with his scarcely less obnoxious son, as a means of maintaining continuity and restoring stability. This Bourbon is not exiting the scene out of monarchical magnanimity, but because the people have left the writing on the wall.

Well, look who’s shutting up now. And it isn’t Hugo Chávez. Goodbye!

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Stephen Collins: Inside The War Machine


From a comment left on the article.

Writing in Saturday’s Irish Times, Stephen Collins lauds Eamon Gilmore’s role in ensuring the ‘political stability to avoid economic catastrophe’. What he means is the Labour Party’s participation in a government whose vocation is launching a massive assault on the living standards, working conditions and expectations for the future, of the working class that the Labour Party has purported to represent.

In undertaking this course of action, the Labour Party not only demonstrated that it was not the party of labour -at least if we understand ‘labour’ as the women and men who have only their labour power to sell in order to make ends meet- but that it was willing to sacrifice the people it claimed to represent, and the principles it claimed to uphold, in order to save Irish capitalism.

For a newspaper like the Irish Times, and for Ireland’s media and establishment more broadly, such a course of action, that is, leading a legislative assault against the working class and patronisingly telling them it is for their own good, is grounds for admiration.

And the electoral response that has seen Labour cast into oblivion by a large part of their supporters can be chalked up, by Stephen Collins and other political correspondents, to fickle electorates and communications failures, not the personal and social disasters generated by government policy.

The solution Collins presents for Labour’s woes -and it is hard to see who is interested in such a solution bar insiders at the top of the Labour Party and their confrères in the corridors of power- is that Labour must go on the attack against Sinn Féin and what he calls the ‘hard left’ and thereby convince voters that neoliberal austerity, that is, the ongoing transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and the destruction of social rights and democratic accountability, is in the best interests of those who have abandoned Labour at this election.

That is, instead of articulating a political alternative for working class people, Labour must become a totem for working class resignation, a beacon for the impossibility of anything else. And here, in this advice as in every single article he writes, Collins is clear: the interests of Capital always come first, and must govern every political decision. What this shows is that Collins and the upper echelons of the Labour Party are not ‘Inside Politics’, but inside a war machine trained on Ireland’s working class.

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