A large part of Ireland’s imagination appears gripped by the controversy concerning Garth Brooks concerts at Croke Park. One hears weeping and gnashing of teeth from people whose dream of seeing Brooks play live may be dashed, and from people who see the dispute as a source of some kind of national shame, or at least profits foregone.
The controversy provides a good opportunity for looking at populism in the Irish context. Last week, using the example of Stephen Collins, I tried to show how populism, in the eyes of the political and media establishments, means an opposition to orthodox good sense and prudence in economic management that is expressed through appeals to collective passions. As I also tried to show, this orthodox good sense and prudence, which dictates that saving the financial sector is a precondition for any other political action, must hold sway against popular strivings and rabble-rousing, even if it is to the detriment of things such as social equality and paid employment.
From the point of view exemplified by Collins, society requires competent administration by a politico-economic elite. The primary tasks of the government of the day are to secure the approval of its creditors and maintain a good business climate. These things are the condition of possibility for everything else. To this end, the government may call upon technocratic expertise, such as that provided by the Fiscal Advisory Council, to guide its actions. The basic maxim here is “no pain, no gain”.
It is the task of ruling politicians, and those who feel the weight of responsibility for the greater good on their shoulders, to communicate the need for pain to the electorate. When popular objections emerge to such things as cuts to vital health and education services, or the introduction of indirect taxes that place the greatest burden on those least capable of coping with it, it is the role of the responsible politician to explain why this is necessary, and to demonstrate that it is the fairest and most reasonable course of action.
The fundamental danger, from this point of view, is that irresponsible politicians will appeal to popular passions and sow confusion in the public mind, for the purposes of their own political career. Ecce populismus: the would-be political leader who promises sunshine from above when there is no alternative to an indefinite rainy season.
Averseness to this kind of populism extends across Ireland’s political establishment: thus Labour TD Alex White, as part of his pitch for party leadership, writing in the Irish Times decried the
down-with-all-taxes brigade and the flag-waving populists who claim to be on our left offer no workable programme, just slogans, soundbites and headline-seeking guff.
A collapse in support for the Labour Party would, in his view, create a situation in which the ‘political choice will be between conservatism and populism’.
The thing is, however, that none of the parties in Ireland’s political establishment is opposed to populism when it suits them. For one, their apparent legitimacy to govern depends on a mandate from ‘the people’. The Constitution of Ireland, after all, stems from the idea that the People of Éire got together to adopt, enact and give themselves the Constitution. It is the people who ultimately decide on all powers of government, including the designation of rulers. Hence it is common to hear the words “the people have spoken” uttered ceremoniously by some politician or other, in the aftermath of some dismal electoral event where not much was at stake and few bothered to turn up.
One recent example of such people-have-spokenism that sticks in the mind is John Bruton’s recent claim, on RTÉ’s This Week radio show, that Jean Claude Juncker had been chosen by “the people of Europe” to be President of the European Commission. The claim to popular legitimacy is ultimately just as important for those who are suspicious of the assorted brigades of roarers and shouters; it is just that ‘the people’, for the stout defenders of orthodox good sense and prudence, only express themselves at the ballot box, ideally after cool and rational calculation, or, on an ongoing basis, through opinion polls where they appear answering all the right questions.
Moreover, the political discourse of the parties of the political establishment and the media outlets that bear them aloft, both during election time and outside it, operates in terms of ideas about ‘the people’, ‘the common good’, ‘the national interest’, and so on, and, crucially, the status of the government as a legitimate political representative of ‘the people’.
What differentiates these groups from the others they designate as ‘populist’ is the role they ascribe to ‘the people’ that confers them legitimacy. Their ‘people’ is one reconciled to the market order, to property-owning democracy, to the imagined separation of the political sphere from the economic sphere, to a political world of legitimate actors composed of politicians, economists, journalists and business figures, safely insulated from the illegitimate political practices of regular and irregular citizens.
And this ‘people’ has its populism too. Whereas radical democratic forces might be described as populist because they seek to make visible an opposition between ordinary people on the one hand and an elite political and economic caste (e.g. Podemos), a similar opposition between ordinary people and privileged groups also forms part of the political discourse of those who stand for orthodox good sense and prudence.
The difference is that the privileged groups in the eyes of the defenders of orthodox good sense and prudence must be confronted because they erect obstacles to the good sense of rule by the markets. They take various forms, depending on circumstances: it may be high-ranking civil servants, or the legal profession, or workers protected by trade unions, and even members of the government or the political elite themselves, in so far as they enjoy some special status that prevents them from market forces. But in addition to these elite groups, there is always the excess of the lumpen rabblement that refuses to reconcile themselves to the rule of the market and good sense, and whose excitable passions must be tempered and brought to heel.
There was a vivid example of this on the front page of this week’s Sunday Independent. Pictured was Owen Keegan, Dublin City Council chief executive (the former title of ‘manager’ was not market-oriented enough) at the centre of the Garth Brooks controversy. He was cycling. The caption on the photo cast him as a Nero on the Liffey, out cycling whilst the flames of the Brooks dispute consumed the city. Thus he was made to appear as the antithesis of the decent car-driving folk from the country who had paid their money to attend the concert, their hopes and desires frustrated by bureaucratic high-handedness and intransigence on the part of a man on a bike who probably knits his own yoghurt or something.
For this ‘people’, what establishes their sovereignty is not so much equality by nature, but money as the free and solemn expression of the general will. Money had determined that five concerts by Garth Brooks was a good thing, and government, in the form of Dublin City Council, was oppressing the people as a consequence.
Moreover, Dublin City Council was opposing the general will of money in the protection of privileged interests, in this case, a small group of Croke Park residents who were objecting to the use of the stadium for so many concerts.
The thought processes behind this money-oriented populism were displayed in a piece by Irish Times columnist Una Mullally yesterday, titled ‘Nimbyism over Brooks concerts a reaction to disrespect for public spaces’. It began with a denunciation of the precious-mindedness of residents of the Croke Park locality:
The triumph of Nimbyism at Croke Park, where a few hundred residents were shocked to realise that buying a house next to one of the largest stadiums in Europe means they will occasionally encounter crowds, is the perfect articulation of one of our national pastimes: expecting the worst. Potential antisocial behaviour being cited as one of the reasons the licence wasn’t granted for five Garth Brooks concerts is a curious smokescreen. If potential antisocial behaviour was a genuine criterion for not granting a gig licence, there would be no large-scale outdoor music events in Ireland. We live in a country where potential antisocial behaviour is just a bottle of Buckfast away.
‘Nimbyism’ – from ‘not in my back yard’ – usually refers people refusing to allow the construction of facilities near their homes, even when such a thing would be of broad benefit to everyone. That is, the assertion of privilege against the general will. Even in the case of a power plant, a dam or a railway track, it may be a dubious enough term if sufficient weight is not given to the precise nature of the objections. Not even Garth Brooks’s most ardent admirer, and I doubt even Garth Brooks, would claim that his music is of universal benefit.
But where money is seen as the free and solemn expression of the general will, the charge of Nimbyism makes perfect sense.
According to this view, Councils exist to ensure the circulation of commodities, not the creation of decent and habitable spaces for residents, and certainly not –heaven forbid!- the provision of services to the wider public, that is, the maintenance and protection of indirect wages for workers. As such, whenever a conflict emerges between the rule of money and anything else, a Council is expected to take the side of the former.
Anyone who stands in opposition to this view of the world, in this case, becomes either a member of a privileged elite –in this case, someone who lives in a house who does not want to be subjected to a series of loud concerts night after night- or a Buckfast-guzzling pleb.
Worth dwelling on here is the idea that Croke Park residents should have bought a house elsewhere if they did not wish to be subjected to loud concerts and crowds outside their homes for days on end. The outworking of this idea is that you are only entitled to the ease and tranquillity that your means allow. Your right to a decent and habitable space and the amenities that accompany it depends on how astutely you play the property market. Again, this all makes perfect sense when money is seen as the free and solemn expression of the general will. As I am sure you can imagine, taken to its logical conclusion, this idea means luxury gated communities for the rich, and a war of all against all for everyone else. Yay.
Ironically for Mullally, who surveys the ‘pent-up idiocy’, the ‘inner Neanderthal’, the ‘lads whooping like apes’, the ‘rowdy boozing on Irish beaches’ and feels pressed to conclude ‘this is why we can’t have nice things’, the real and decisive disrespect for public spaces emanates from the primacy of money over democratic equality and decency. It is a disrespect she is more than happy to uphold, in the interests of the prevailing money-oriented populism.