Monthly Archives: October 2014

Notes on Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution’


I wasn’t planning on reading Russell Brand’s book Revolution. It was only when I saw the media responses to it that my curiosity was piqued enough to give it a go. I was fascinated by the idea that Russell Brand, a comedian, should have to give a rigorous and precise account of how capitalism ought to be replaced with something better. Regular readers of this blog will know I devote quite a lot of attention to the question of political participation: who is considered a legitimate participant in politics?

So many of the responses to Brand are based on the received idea that politics is a matter for serious people who wear serious suits and speak in serious tones.

This idea is held to be true even when the language used by such figures stretches well beyond the bounds of credibility. Let me give you an example. In Ireland, there is a Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. When I scan that job title, it seems as if the second part is concerned with reforming the public, in a similar vein to when Brecht wrote about the government dissolving the people and electing another. Anyway, said Minister declared yesterday that he was a “passionate believer in semi-State enterprises”.

It’s impossible to take such a statement at face value, as though he would accept his own crucifixion in order to keep the idea of State-owned capitalist enterprises alive. This is one of the reasons policy-making circles across Europe have such low levels of public credibility nowadays. Then there is also the fact that the policies enacted serve capital first and foremost. The latter fact has become palpable to many people over recent years on account of lived experience. Such people may have accepted the legitimacy of Britain’s parliamentary democracy when it appeared that it served them, but such appearances are hard to keep up during the imposition of a brutal programme of austerity.

Established political parties are unable to give expression to the consequent outrage and disaffection. It is in this context that so-called ‘populist’ voices emerge, hence Russell Brand’s present popularity.

One anonymous reviewer on Amazon was typical of the wider response in media circles to Brand’s book and publicity campaign:

‘Any man who advocates the murder of the queen, the confiscation of private property and offers no concrete manifesto deserves not to be heard.’

As it happens, if you read the book, Brand doesn’t advocate the murder of the queen. In fact, he suggests that she be stripped of her title, turfed out of Buckingham Palace in order for 100 poor families to move in, and perhaps given the option of staying on there as a cleaner. But this is beside the point. The response reflects the fake open-mindedness of the response to the book in establishment circles.

This stance of apparent open-mindedness holds that right-minded people are not necessarily opposed to murdering the queen or confiscating private property or whatever: it just has to be articulated convincingly, and, from this perspective, Brand is judged incapable of doing this. The plans are so vague and so poorly expressed, the person articulating them so scatter-brained and with such a dubious history, that one need not bother entertaining them.

This stance supposes us to believe that parliamentary democracy under neoliberal capitalism has been settled upon as the best of all worlds. But not only that: if it could be shown that it were not the best of all worlds, then existing structures of power would freely and willingly conform to whatever that new model might be.

If an alternative model were desirable, it would already be here, because Very Serious People would have decided upon it. There would be no need for the queen to be turfed out of Buckingham Palace; she would have scuttled out herself, of her own accord, after consulting with the British Academy. Hence it can only ever be the incoherent and infantile who would seek to show that the way things are is not more or less how it ought to be. In this regard, the focus on Brand as an unreliable and confused figure is congruent to a wider picture of an unthinking, easily-led and dangerous mob.

What about the book, then? I’m not even half way through yet. But I think it’s great so far: entertaining popular literature about society under capitalism that’s accessible and funny and –to a large extent- convincing. It isn’t without its shortcomings but what book is? Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright bored me to tears and I can’t remember a single damn thing about it, except something about Wikipedia. If I tried to talk to my work colleagues or family about the concept of biopolitical labour as discussed in Commonwealth by Hardt and Negri, they’d look at me as if I had two heads, partly because I wouldn’t be too sure of my explanation. Russell Brand’s book is likely to engage people who don’t normally talk about capitalism at all, and I think that’s a good thing.

I’m listening to the audiobook. Brand is doing the reading, and I reckon that makes a difference. He’s a talented writer but I’m guessing some of the words fall flat on the page, because they can’t be conveyed the way he delivers a monologue with changes in speed, tone, accent, emphasis and ironic inflection. The reviews I’ve read so far, even the ones that tend to be positive, focus on the absence of concrete political solutions, and either dismiss or ignore the parts on consciousness.

But the parts on consciousness, though a bit uneven, are what I find most interesting so far. He explores the way neoliberal capitalism shapes our ideas about ourselves, drawing on his own experience, first as a working class teenager enthralled by consumerism and the promise of fame, then as an insatiable drug and sex addict. Crucially, he is writing about it in a way that deliberately seeks to appeal to people like him, who didn’t necessarily go to university, who take no interest in politics, who find themselves intimidated and alienated by experts in the service of power and wealth. He isn’t writing with a view to presenting the 2014 Reith Lectures. He doesn’t try to ape the style of Someone In The Know: he continually recognises his own failings and vulnerability, and the possibility he might be wrong, which is more than you can say for his critics. And he is aware of his habitual egomania, whereas those reflexively diagnosing him with narcissism seem blissfully unaware of what this might say about them.

I don’t share his enthusiasm for religious experiences, and whereas he associates Transcendental Meditation with the Beatles, I associate it with the Beach Boys’ Mike Love: hardly a key figure in anti-capitalist counterculture. But he’s far more sensitive to the social realities of religion, to the reasons people engage in religious practices than, for example, Richard Dawkins. There seems to be an idea doing the rounds that there is something weird about religion and spirituality informing ideas about overturning the social order in the pursuit of a free and equal association of human beings. You would have to ignore huge chunks of the history of England’s revolutionary tendencies to come to this conclusion.

What also comes across from the reviews and commentary on him more generally is a disdain for the notion that there are techniques you can use to shape your own consciousness, of how you relate to the wider world and other people. All this is either treated as falling outside the realm of politics or the frivolous concern of affluent hippies. But it’s wishful thinking, at best, to treat this dimension of human experience as irrelevant. Thatcher herself said ‘Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul’: neoliberalism itself has never left this dimension to chance, so I think Brand is right to use it as a starting point.

People seizing on the verbal flights of fancy as evidence of a lack of seriousness or trustworthiness are missing the point: a lot of the time, Brand does this to anticipate the reflex response to specialised language and serious-sounding concepts from people who wouldn’t normally explore this subject matter. He chews over them, cuts them down to size, places them on playfully human terms that makes them accessible.

That isn’t to say his writing always coheres: some of the concepts – ‘unity’, ‘connectedness’, ‘consciousness’, for example, can be hard to pin down. Sometimes he uses big words when small ones would have done. I get the feeling this stems from an anxiety about intellectual credibility, about not being taken seriously. That feeling also comes across when he adds a self-deprecating aside to a serious matter. Sometimes it appears geared to make the reader or the listener feel at home with the material, but at other times it seems for the writer.

That kind of anxiety is understandable, as illustrated by the reception given to the book. But it is not at all “barmy”, as Nick Cohen puts it in his Observer review. Cohen writes:

“We’re all doing the same thing, dreaming the same dream, in the words of Belinda Carlisle,” he announces in a sentence that is so syrupy a Barbie doll might have written it, and worse – much worse – misquotes Ms Carlisle.

In fact, the sentence in question rounds off a fairly interesting and not at all syrupy discussion of how the same images recur in people’s dreams across different cultures. Brand goes on to joke, in typical fashion, that come to think of it, he’ll have to take another look at the song now. It’s hardly misquoting Belinda Carlisle to identify ‘dreaming the same dream’ as a lyric from one of her songs. But accusing someone of misquoting someone by misquoting them yourself is misquoting raised to a higher power.

One of the major strengths of Brand’s book, at least as far as I’ve got with it, is the way he anticipates how responses such as these are just part of a defence of power and privilege. He discusses the use of guard labour and police militarisation as a means of sustaining unequal societies, but also symbolic power: titles, honorifics, and in Britain, deference to monarchy and the domineering contempt from elite voices when anyone proposes that things could be different.

What’s important here is his ability to do this with humour and accessibility, anticipating that many of his readers and listeners might be habitually inclined to recoil. Especially impressive, I thought, is the way he advances the idea that the overthrow of political power has to be accompanied by a subjective transformation, what he describes -shades of Foucault- as “overthrowing the David Cameron in our heads”.

To be clear: the book is a muddle. But it has lots of illuminating observations and plenty of sensible ideas. And, to put it mildly, these are muddled times. The forging of a new democratic common sense against capitalism isn’t going to come via Guardian op-eds or Newsnight reports. It isn’t going to spring into life as a consequence of this book either. If it comes, it will entail those outside the political system finding the common language to name their problems and create collective solutions. Brand’s book, if it is anything, is an attempt to break with the reigning hegemony of Britain’s polite culture with its deference to expertise and wealth. So: the more such people read this book, the better.


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Russell Brand’s Moment of ‘Truth’

I took great satisfaction in watching Russell Brand wiping the floor with the egregious Evan Davis in the above video. One of the things I liked most was the way Brand supplemented his habitual mateyness with a certain edge: he refers to Davis as “mate” and pats him repeatedly on the knee, but at the same time, warns Davis not to patronise him. It is a moment of subtle sharpness. Davis doubtless lacks the self-awareness to know he is being patronising.

Brand isn’t to everyone’s taste. He has a chequered history, some questionable acquaintances, and has said and done some grossly sexist things. This, believe it or not, is not that uncommon in men. You wouldn’t put him in charge of anything. At times he can say dubious things, but here he was quite sound. He voiced solidarity with the Fire Brigades Union, the Focus E15 Mothers, and rebutted Davis’s insinuation that this kind of political activity was something minor and piecemeal. He made Davis look like a fool by rattling off a list of names of major corporations and challenging him to defend the idea that such corporations operate in the interests of ordinary people. He pointed to the intimate links between ruling politicans and established media figures like Davis, and explained how media institutions such as the BBC impose the political perspectives of business elites.

But what’s valuable about Brand at the minute is not so much the content, but rather, to paraphrase Frank Carson, it’s the way he tells it. Most people’s understanding of politics is shaped by this idea of processes that unfold in formalised settings in which gravitas confers authenticity. Seeing people speak in a certain register and in measured, calculated terms can result in acquiring the habit of thinking that this is what politics is in fact about, and that in order to be able to speak about political issues, you have to have this way of speaking and consequentially this way of thinking. So politics becomes a matter for people like Evan Davis. What Brand does, in this video, as elsewhere, is de-mystify all that. He demonstrates that to practise politics, to communicate politically, and to think politically, you don’t need to pour yourself into an established mould.

Davis focused on one passage from Brand’s book where he appears to entertain the idea that the Twin Towers was an inside job, in the manner of a 9/11 truther. This functions as a dividing line between respectable opinions on the one hand and swivel-eyed crazies on the other. Brand said that the links between the Bush and Bin Laden families were interesting. They were certainly interesting enough for Newsnight itself to report on them some years back:

Does the Bush family also have to worry about political blow-back? The younger Bush made his first million 20 years ago with an oil company partly funded by Salem Bin Laden’s chief US representative. Young George also received fees as director of a subsidiary of Carlyle Corporation, a little known private company which has, in just a few years of its founding, become one of Americas biggest defence contractors. His father, Bush Senior, is also a paid advisor. And what became embarrassing was the revelation that the Bin Ladens held a stake in Carlyle, sold just after September 11.

Brand said that “I think it is interesting at this time when we have so little trust in our political figures, where ordinary people have so little trust in their media, we have to remain open-minded to any kind of possibility”. You could interpret this as saying that 9/11 may have been an inside job, or you could interpret it as saying that media is so untrustworthy in general that it is hardly surprising ordinary people do not believe what they are told. It was a minor moment in the interview, and Brand emphasised he did not want to discuss “daft” conspiracy theories. Both the Independent and the Guardian, however, had other ideas, with the headlines ‘Russell Brand admits he’s ‘open minded’ to 9/11 conspiracy theories in Newsnight interview with Evan Davis‘ and ‘Russell Brand ‘open-minded’ about who was behind 9/11 attacks‘, respectively. Not the Focus E15 Mothers, not the families of the New Era estate in Hoxton who face eviction on account of rent hikes inflicted by “the brother of the richest Tory MP in the country”, not the Fire Brigades Union, not the police treatment of protesters in Parliament Square, which Brand contrasted unfavourably with the Chinese government’s treatment of protesters in Hong Kong. None of these things were worthy of a headline from the more left-leaning British broadsheet sites. Nor Brand’s criticisms of the media, for that matter. But the possibility that Brand might believe conspiracy theories -which he himself described as “daft”- was.

Why? Part of it, I imagine, has to do with an imaginary cordon sanitaire used to separate the tinfoil hatted loons from the sane public. Making an example out of Brand has a disciplinary effect: if this part of what he is saying is crazy, then the rest of it must be too, so you don’t want to go there. From this perspective, it is beyond the bounds of sanity to believe the Queen is a lizard, but on the other hand, if you believe Elizabeth Windsor should be the Head of State and live in fabulous opulence because she happens to be a member of a master race, you will fit in nicely among all right-thinking people. Hence the stigma attached to people who believe in conspiracy theories, handily enough, happens to prop up the conventional wisdom of the ruling class. The wild-eyed rabble on the one hand, the gentleman legislators and rational thinkers on the other.

Brand’s initial refusal to look at a graph pulled up onscreen by Davis also seems to have caused quite a lot of condescending mirth among such rational thinkers. “Yes, our capitalist system is breaking down and our democracy has many flaws with it.”, writes one. Our capitalist system? We sick, boss? The graph Davis wanted to show Brand was a timeline of real wages. The point Davis wanted to make to Brand was that wages in real terms had been rising over time until the recent sharp drop, so why get rid of capitalism if it had created so much prosperity? Brand responded: “This is a lovely graph, well done mate, this is the kind of thing people like you use to confuse people like us.”

This may not be a satisfactory response if what you are looking for is a line of reasoning based on inferences from the graph data, but it does have the virtue of being true. At the core of capitalism is the wage relation. Ending capitalism and replacing it with socialism does not mean improving the wage relation, but abolishing it. To frame human welfare solely in terms of the wage relation, which is what Davis’s graph does, is to tacitly propose to the viewing public that capitalism is the only system there ever will or can be. This was not a dispassionate empirical enquiry but the conjuring of a prop that recalled Paul Lafargue’s worker’s catechism (‘Q: What is your name? A: Wage labourer. Q: Who are your parents? A. My father was called Wage labourer. My mother’s name is Poverty.’)

Brand’s response might bring guffaws of laughter from those who think a masterful command of economic data is a necessary criterion for being taken seriously, the people whom Lafargue lampooned as the faithful believers in “the eternal principles of our most Holy Church, official political economy”, but it no doubt rang true for plenty of those viewers among the broad swathes of society in Britain whose voice, as Brand rightly points out, is either systematically ignored or patronisingly denigrated. The fact so many of them take Brand seriously has nothing to do with what he has to say about 9/11, and it hints at their day coming sooner than Britain’s political establishment and its compliant press would care to think.


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Storming Heaven and Consensus: Podemos’s Citizen Assembly

This is a translation of an article by Olga Rodríguez, published 21st October in, on last weekend’s Citizen Assembly held by Podemos.


Podemos: an unprecedented process
By Olga Rodríguez

Podemos uses the first person plural, not the third. It is not Pueden [‘they can’]; it is Podemos [‘we can’] and this entails the will to include as many people as possible, to get the contribution of many citizens.

In the grouping’s Citizen Assembly, celebrated this past weekend in Vistalegre, one could see many faces from inside and out. There were activists from social movements, people from the 15M, workers and unemployed, young people, older people and children. Some attended already convinced that the grouping is the vital tool for transforming the country. Others went along to be convinced, or simply out of curiosity.

I attended as a journalist to observe the atmosphere, the debates, the challenges and the arguments in the course of the two days. There were moments of tension, both on and off the stage. Logically enough: there is a great deal at stake.

That is how MEP Teresa Rodríguez put it in an informal conversation with the press: “If there is tension it’s because the weight of responsibility we have is enormous. If there were no debate this would be a dead initiative.”

In the aisles, politics lecturer Ariel Jerez, from Pablo Iglesias’s group, said “this is a school for democracy with critical pedagogy”.

Onstage there were contributions that received no applause, there was whistling when speakers went beyond their time even when it was just a few seconds, there was a lot of applause, and there was the now famous call for silence by Pablo Iglesias. 72 hours after the end of the assembly, let me highlight a few characteristics:

1.- Neither the assembly nor the whole process Podemos has been following over the past months to define its ethical, political and organisational lines is limited to those who are most active. That is, the grouping’s structure is not made solely for the activists, but for popular participation. It is open and it allows for different levels of commitment. Thousands of people attended the assembly in Vistalegre, but tens of thousands more followed it live via streaming, more than 38,000 voted on the resolutions and many took part by sending questions and deliberations via internet.

All of this breaks with the political logic that had existed until now. More than 150,000 people have already signed up to vote on Podemos’s proposals throughout this week.


2.- It is an open door process. Citizens can find out in detail what it is that each group is proposing and they have listened live to the discussion of the different proposals, with moments of tension and with criticisms. Let’s admit it: compared to the secrecy and the closing of ranks that is the norm under the two-party system, this is something new. It is the will of a grouping that wants to promote a collective debate.

3.- The process includes many people who come from social movements. One of the most interesting moments of the assembly was the presentation of the five most-voted resolutions. The promoters of these resolutions rose to the stage and we were able to listen to teachers, economists, lawyers, doctors and professional experts defending the need for quality public health and education systems, the right to housing, urgent anti-corruption measures and debt restructuring.

Among others who spoke were the economist Bibiana Medialdea, doctors Mónica García and Juan Antonio Palacios, specialist in Psychiatry, Public Health and Preventive Medicine, as well as members of the Mortgage Holders’ Platform [PAH] Irene Montero, Carlos Huerga and the lawyer Rafa Mayoral.

4.- The tense side of things: there are differences between the various proposals. Pablo Iglesias used a sporting simile to say that when a basketball game cannot be won you can “bring every player on, give everyone a go”, but when it can be won “we cannot make a wrong move, nor miss a three-pointer”.

He said this in clear reference to the ‘Sumando Podemos’ [Together We Can] proposal, driven by Pablo Echenique and supported among others by the MEPs Teresa Rodríguez and Lola Sánchez. This proposal calls for 20% of the roles on the Citizen Council to be decided by lottery, for the Citizen Assembly to be elected every two years and that instead of a General Secretary for there to be three spokespersons.

Iglesias and his team on the other hand call for a General Secretary, a Citizen Assembly elected every three years, and they believe that election by lottery would hamper effectiveness. Those who criticise them say that democracy would be lost, and they respond by underlining the importance of the timelines: municipal and regional elections in a matter of months and a year for the general elections. They hold that a situation of political and economic emergency, with elections just around the corner and adversaries who have the advantage, requires a leadership with emergency dynamics that guarantee victories.

The group supporting the ‘Sumando Podemos’ initiative appeals to “consensus”, whereas Pablo Iglesias opened the assembly with the phrase “heaven is not seized through consensus, but by storming it”, and stressed that if his proposal did not win, he would stand aside. He does not wish either to lead or contend with organisational models he does not agree with.

During break times from the assembly, in the aisles, coffee in hand, certain people held that to win hegemony internally there ought to be different methods used than the dialectic of confrontation applied outward. This has continued to be discussed on social networks since.

Barring the odd exception, the discussions are being handled with great political responsibility. What is striking is the preoccupation of certain sectors outside, interested in maintaining the status quo, who these days have unsuccessfully sought to discredit what is an unprecedented political process that is attractive to many people.

On the 26th the voting on the proposals inside Podemos will end, on the 27th the result will be known and in November the candidates will be chosen. Then the most urgent matter can be addressed: the battle against those responsible for the political and financial robbery, the struggle to recover the spaces robbed from the citizens. There is a great deal at stake.

Heaven is occupied and controlled by investment funds, by tax havens, by corrupt figures, by those who bail out banks whilst throwing people out of their homes. Freedoms and rights do not just come along: they have to be won. And, as history shows, heaven is not handed over as a gift: it has to be seized.

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Ireland: Country On The Verge of A Communications Breakdown

'Forget the fire, what matters is people not seeing the smoke!'

‘Forget the fire, it’s people not seeing the smoke that matters!’

Let’s review some rueful episodes of Ireland’s recent past.

Irish Water. Complete disaster. The firm has failed to communicate properly with people regarding how they can pay for their water. The government has failed to communicate properly to people that they need to pay for their water. Fortunately there is time for Irish Water to get it right, with the help of conscientious journalists.

Property Tax. A fiasco. The authorities failed to communicate properly with people regarding how to fill out the forms, and how to assess the value of their homes. As a result, the public mood was inflamed by siren voices preaching mayhem, and could have taken the nation to the brink of chaos had Revenue not taken matters in hand.

Bank bailout. An outrage. The authorities failed to communicate to people that property developers racking up astronomical debts was in fact their fault, and that things such as driving down wages, or cutting budgets for health, education and social welfare, were in fact in their best interests. What is more, they failed to make people understand that a thriving financial speculation sector is an essential part of a thriving society. As a consequence, people have fallen prey to populism, endangering long term economic prosperity.

Symphisiotomy scandal. Dreadful dereliction of responsibilities. The authorities failed to communicate to the women affected by symphisiotomy that sawing through their pelvis was not only in their best interests but in the best interests of society as a whole. It is understandable that this is an emotive issue for many, but we have to see these things in the context of their time.

Magdalene Laundries. An appalling story. The authorities failed to communicate to people that these institutions really operated in the best interests of society as a whole, and were motivated largely by concern for the welfare of those who worked in them. Surely a calm debate is now needed.

Industrial schools. Shameful episode. The authorities failed to communicate to people just how much effort the religious orders actually put in to look after those in their care, and just how troublesome their charges could prove. A balanced account is urgently required.

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Neighbours vs. Residents: Some Thoughts

I can clearly recall the day, some ten years back, just after we had moved into our house and were out in the street taking delivery of some household appliance, how the man from across the way approached me, and, stretching out his hand, said with a smile, “Hello resident!” From that day on, we have got on very well, helping each other out with this and that, chatting about this, that and the other.

No, sorry, that’s not quite right. He said “Hello neighbour!”.

There is a difference between being a resident and a neighbour. There’s nothing necessarily good about being a neighbour, especially if you’re the kind who likes nothing better to do a spot of arc-welding in your terraced house in the dark of night.

But ‘neighbour’ implies some kind of relation to others, a common bond, whereas ‘resident’ does not. Residents reside, nothing more. Perhaps this is one reason why the most prominent voices at Residents’ Association meetings can be those most concerned with matters like delineating the boundaries between their dwelling and someone else’s, or getting the police in to give a talk on why everyone should install a burglar alarm.

The difference between being a resident and being a neighbour came to mind a little while ago when I was translating a speech by Ada Colau at the launch of Guanyem Barcelona. You can watch the speech here, with my subtitles. Even if you read no further of this post, I promise you that watching the speech is worth it.

At one point in the speech she says

But we are the people who are out on the streets, we are normal people, ordinary people, who speak with our neighbours [in Catalan, las veïnas i els veís] each day, who in contrast to professional politicians get onto public transport every day…’

And then she says:

We are the neighbours, we are the neighbourhoods [els barris] who have taken the lead in the finest victories of this city, which would not have happened if it were not for the neighbourhood struggles of recent decades. And we are also the neighbours who are getting organised today to confront the disasters that are being created by the political institutions in connivance with the economic powers that be.

So the operative word of ‘neighbour’ carries with it, in such a context, a common human bond that ‘resident’ lacks in English. I thought it was interesting how, when it comes to the Irish Water protests, the emphasis is on what ‘residents’ are doing, and how, from certain perspectives, if you’re not a ‘resident’, you have no right to be entering a particular area in order to protest. In fact, ‘neighbour’ isn’t a word that fits into the overall discourse around the opposition to water charges. ‘Resident’, on the other hand, neatly fits into an atomised view of the world, in which water charges are the sole responsibility of individual units.

(Bible enthusiasts might like to know that the word for ‘neighbour’ as in ‘love your neighbour’ in Catalan as with in Spanish is not the same word for the person who lives in a dwelling near yours, but simply the person next to you: el teu proïsme)

‘Resident’ is also an administrative category from the perspective of the State. You are entitled to certain benefits, for example, based on the criterion of ‘habitual residency’. So it is also worth thinking about the effects of talking about ‘residents’ of Direct Provision centres.

I’m afraid I don’t have any name that works as a better fit for these contexts. But sometimes it isn’t so much about inventing a name to put on things, but of accumulating forces, of building forms of solidarity, so that the established order can no longer rely on words to bind what can be said and what can be done.

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Stephen Collins and ‘the Irish psyche’

'What matters is not what is happening but who defines the events'

‘What matters is not what is happening but who defines the events’

This is originally a comment left on a post-budget analysis in the Irish Times by its political correspondent Stephen Collins, who, evidently responding to the mass opposition to water charges that has materialised in both active resistance in housing estates and a huge demonstration in Dublin city centre last week, wrote that:

A fundamental problem is that paying for water offends something deep in the Irish psyche. Living in a country where it rains so much, people find it hard to accept the notion of paying for water. Of course what they will actually be paying for is its treatment and distribution but that is not easy to explain.

I’d love to see the poll questions and methodology Stephen Collins uses to assess ‘the Irish psyche’. Eamon De Valera once said that to know what the Irish people thought all he had to do was look into his own heart. I imagine Stephen Collins is more methodical, and commissions MRBI/Ipsos to launch a probe deep into his own raging id.

Meanwhile in the real world, that is, anywhere outside the general vicinity of Leinster House, anyone you speak to is well aware that the treatment and distribution of water has to be paid for. It is just that most people are aware that they are already paying for it through general taxation, and, given that they are already paying for it, do not see why they should pay even more for it in the form of a regressive tax. It seems that the only people incapable of grasping the reality of this situation are those whose job it is to ignore this reality.

While we’re on the subject of tax, it’s worth noting that throughout all the years of austerity measures designed to protect the sectors of society culpable for Ireland’s economic crash, I cannot recall a single instance where a political commentator in an established media outfit identified cuts to public spending and the consequent withdrawal of vital public services as effectively a higher tax burden on the working people who depend on these services. Indeed, they actively sought to dispel such thoughts by framing previous budgets in terms of a choice between raising taxes and cutting expenditure. I think this is down to something buried deep in such commentators’ collective psyche. I might get MRBI/Ipsos to do a survey on the matter, then torture the data until it confesses I’m right. (For the context, see here).

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Irish Water Protests: The View from Beijing

'Water that flows is money that is lost'

‘Water that flows is money that is lost’

I had a listen to Liveline today, the popular phone-in show on RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster. There was a discussion about the protests against the installation of water meters taking place on numerous estates in Dublin, though the focus of the discussion was Clare Hall, in North Dublin.

Apparently one of the earliest callers, who I missed, advocated using tear gas to disperse the protesters. Another caller said that rule of law was the cornerstone of democracy and that the protesters had no business obstructing Irish Water from doing their work and these things should be addressed in the ballot box. Another said her husband worked for Irish Water and that people should only protest at designated times after seeking permission from the authorities.

Joan Burton’s comments about protesters using “extremely expensive mobile phones” were played several times, and concern was expressed for the welfare of the police. A resident of Clare Hall complained about the “gangs” of “vigilantes” roaming the estate and intimidating people. This complaint was countered by a caller who said that other people on the estate had been welcoming, inviting them into their house to use the bathroom, providing tea, and so on.

On the whole, the comments of most callers opposed to the protesters echoed the comments by Enda Kenny and Joan Burton in the Dáil. To wit: a small group of people, unrepresentative of the bulk of society, acting for their own selfish purposes, was failing to show respect for the rule of law. They were paralysing transportation, disrupting business, and interfering with the daily lives of residents of the area. There are ample ways of communicating discontent, they said, but not through this kind of confrontation.

Not only does this sentiment echo the comments of the main government figures in the Dáil, but they also echo, perhaps even more perfectly, the statement of the Chinese Communist Party regarding the protests in ‘Occupy Central’ in Hong Kong, as you can read here. Doubtless there are many Chinese people who share the Chinese Communist Party’s view.

Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party’s view that the ‘vast majority of people in Hong Kong agree that economic growth and the improvement of people’s livelihoods are the most important challenges facing them today’ would fit well in with the standard view of protest expressed both by figures in the Irish government and Ireland’s established press. It would not sound out of place in a Stephen Collins column in the Irish Times, for example.

I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the negative comments expressed on Liveline, which I am prepared to imagine reflect the feelings of a substantial number of Irish people. This is the idea that there is something illegitimate and base about a small group of people from outside an estate protesting on an estate against the wishes of the residents. In so doing I will ignore the many images of people who are indeed from the areas where the protests are taking place, and who are participating in meetings there. Like in this picture here, from Kilbarrack this evening.

The idea that there is something wrong with people protesting in an estate where they do not live shows scant understanding of how democracy works and how the law works. Let me explain. Irish Water meters are being installed on public property. Indeed, the Taoiseach has said as much in the Dáil. In democracy, members of the public have the right to contest and protest what the State does with public property, at the very minimum..

Based on these principles, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference if you got out of your scratcher at 4am and travelled from Mizen Head to protest in Dublin: it is the same as if the meter were being installed right outside your own gaff.

Thus objecting to protesters on the basis that “they’re not from round here” has as much sense as saying that Enda Kenny has no right as Taoiseach to be making decisions affecting Dublin because he is from the Wesht.

The Irish Water installation is not happening across the country on the foot of a process whereby residents of a particular area have freely decided whether or not they want them installed in their community; it was a decision centrally taken, regardless of whether the residents of any particular area objected. The Troika and the Irish government are as indifferent to the wishes of the protesters in Clare Hall as they are to the fearful curtain twitchers who look outside and hallucinate about rampaging vigilantes.

In democracy, the claim that an entity such as Irish Water has ‘unshakable legal status and validity’, to use the Chinese Communist Party’s term in objecting to the legitimacy of the protests in Hong Kong, is only true for as long and as far as the demos consents to it.


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The Irish Constitution and its ‘Weaker Sections’

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools.

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools. Credit:

I left this comment on an article in today’s Irish Times titled Budget 2015: How constitutional is the behaviour of our Minister for Finance?. The article is by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography at Maynooth University, and is well worth a read for the data it shows.

The trends in relation to poverty, emigration and regional inequalities laid out in this article are shocking. The fact that the government is planning on introducing what the author calls ‘tax cuts for fat cats’ illustrates very clearly where their priorities lie.

However, Michael Noonan might well argue that cutting taxes for the wealthier strata of Irish society is intended to reverse these trends, and hence he is operating in keeping with the Constitution, and that, contrary to the author’s suggestion, he is indeed ‘safeguarding with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’, or, in more common terms, ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.

The starting point of such an argument is the orthodox position that economic growth is beneficial to the whole of society because it leads to an improvement in public finances, and to pursue economic growth you have to maintain an attractive climate for investment. This in turn gives the government more leeway to ‘safeguard the weaker sections of the community’. This position is adhered to by all the main political parties. They all claim that maintaining an attractive business climate -i.e. tax cuts for fat cats- is the precondition for ‘safeguarding the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’. They would likely argue that the primary economic interest of the weaker sections of the community is having a job and making sure their boss has a viable business. That’s why they say “jobs jobs jobs”, all the time, like crazed fanatics. Besides, what politician does not claim to be acting in the interests of compassion and social justice? Even the Tory party in the UK does that nowadays.

What is a constitution for, anyway? One of the major democratic events in recent decades was the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. After a massive social mobilisation, a new constitution was drafted that guaranteed the political and social rights of broad masses of people hitherto excluded from the political process. It is a common sight to see workers, women, peasants and people from sections of society previously excluded from political life taking to the streets with copies of the constitution in their hand: it is their constitution, and they charge themselves with enforcing it. The idea that the strong should look after the weak, expressed in Ireland’s Constitution and cited by the author here, is at odds with this kind of citizen-led democratic government. Democracy can never be the weak drawing attention to their weakness and calling upon the ruling powers to look after them – at best, that is benevolent oligarchy.

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“Let Them Drink Fluoride!” – further reluctant reflections on water fluoridation

SCIENTIST: David Costello

SCIENTIST: David Costello

Christ knows I should have better things to be writing about than water fluoridation but these things have a habit of lodging in my consciousness and the only way of flushing them out is to write something about it.

Last night a majority of councillors on Dublin City Council voted against the fluoridation of the water supply. Less than half an hour earlier a majority of councillors voted on a motion deploring the excessive mobilisation of Gardaí including the Public Order Unit into Dublin housing estates and the arrest of residents under the Water Services Act, and declared its support for peaceful resistance to water meter installation.

On the surface of it, the motion was an important statement of solidarity with people fearing the impact of water charges and treated like criminals for making their objections public.

The vote against the fluoridation of the water supply, however, has dominated attention on social media, the response largely negative, with people declaring that they would not vote for any person or party who had voted against fluoridation.

Such declarations and other negative responses are based on the conviction that water fluoridation poses no danger to the public and is in fact beneficial to public health, and in particular to the dental health of impoverished children. This conviction is based on a body of scientific evidence indicating the beneficial effects of water fluoridation in this regard.

For my part, based on what I’ve read about it, I think the conviction is largely correct. My main qualification would be that general discussion of water fluoridation rests on the assumption that the regulatory bodies and authorities tasked with the fluoridation of water are good enough to ensure that the quantity of fluoride in the water supply is not in excess of levels that would pose an identifiable health risk.

There are quite a few colourful characters mobilising against the removal of water fluoridation, and they make claims that do not stand up to scrutiny. But why does their message -and not, say, the message of those predicting the end of the world at some identified date before next summer- find traction? Is it because people are just stupid?

If people are susceptible to arguments that fluoridation as such amounts to an enforced policy of harmful mass medication, I suggest it is down, at least in part, to the fact that many are reluctant to take the claims of authorities charged with public welfare in Ireland at face value. What is more, this reluctance can, with justification, rely on the solid ground of bitter experience, whether in one’s personal encounters or in knowledge of real-life horror stories: symphisiotomy, caesarean hysterectomies, baby trafficking, child slavery, the Hepatitis C crisis, to name a few. The Sinn Féin councillor, who introduced the motion at Dublin City Council, Anthony Connaghan, referred to the case of the Irish government’s failure to issue a warning about Thalidomide.

Objecting to Anthony Connaghan’s motion was David Costello of Fianna Fáil. Highlighting his own background as a scientist, he insisted on the unreliability of the scientific claims being made against fluoridation, and singled out people wearing pink bikinis as a reasonable indication that the anti-fluoride campaign was not to be trusted, and that people backing Connaghan’s motion were ‘crazy’. He also said that it was

the only health initiative in the last hundred years in this country that has looked after the working class people

It’s quite a startling admission from a member of a party that has held power for 61 of the past hundred years. It indicates that the Irish State does not respond to the needs of Ireland’s working class, but to those of certain other groups.

I agree, of course, but that’s beside the point: the argument for the maintenance of fluoridation of water, typified by David Costello, can be advanced, and can appear perfectly reasonable in polite society, regardless of one’s broader perspectives on democratic government.

It is perfectly reasonable, according to this argument, to fluoridate the water supply because it is beneficial to the health of an impoverished minority, but this does not carry with it any obligation to include any wider consideration of why the socio-economic inequalities that it supposedly redresses actually exist in the first instance, including consideration of why Ireland’s political institutions consistently fail to address these inequalities.

A rigorous application of the scientific method, once it dawned on David Costello that his party had done next nothing to address the health needs of Ireland’s working class in the best part of a century would be for him to burn his Fianna Fáil membership card immediately. Assuming, of course, that he actually cared.

Nor does this carry with it, as far as I can see, any obligation to apply the scientific method to public health policies more broadly. The lethal effects of austerity policies have been widely documented. One such example is the work of David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. And yet the hoots of derision that greet anti-fluoridation campaigners, or people concerned with fluoride in the water supply more generally, seldom greet the latest missive from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council or the Irish Central Bank.

Why is this? Part of the reason, I think, is that the idea, as far as conventional wisdom goes, that “the working class people” are there to be “looked after” but have no agency as political subjects, permeates right to the bone in Ireland. ‘The working class’ frequently appears in Ireland’s legislative history, but as a class that serves a particular function within a society where their proper place in the scheme of things is already known, and not open to question or alteration.

And anti-fluoride political positions, and anti-fluoride paranoia, are seldom -if ever- considered in terms of the paternalistic contempt shown by State institutions, including the Oireachtas, towards working class people.

One can be in favour of water fluoridation because it is in the best interests of ‘the working class people’ and one can, simultaneously, be in favour of austerity because it is in the best interests of ‘the working class people’ (usually incorporated to ‘Ireland’ or ‘the Irish people’) and feel free of any obligation to consider what working class people actually think, feel, say or do.


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Irish Water: The Bowel Movements of Kleptocracy


There are two major stories in Ireland at the minute. One is the tribulations of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and something of a crisis in the Fine Gael party. The other is the introduction of water charges through Irish Water.

Most of the attention is dedicated to the first story. Kenny’s attempt to get a failed county council election candidate for Fine Gael elected to the Seanad, via an appointment to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, has blown up in his face. This is the kind of story that gets political correspondents frotting their laps in excitement. Disarray in the court of King Kenny, that sort of thing. More broadly, it exposes the gap between the promises made by Fine Gael and Labour for a ‘democratic revolution’ and ‘political reform’, and the sordid reality: patronage, cronyism and disregard for transparency and accountability. So it provides good ground for earnest denunciations of low standards in public life.

Coverage of Irish Water deals largely with the effectiveness of its implementation, and the anticipated costs to the consumer. The fundamental political question arising from Irish Water -whether it is right to ration water on the basis of wealth- was seldom posed, bar the token allowances made for radical dissenting voices.

Irish Water, by these lights, is an established and inalterable fact. The legitimacy of its introduction at the behest of the Troika was, from this view, always self-evident. The role of the public, according to Ireland’s media, is now to calculate how best to minimise the cost of water to their household, how to maximise consumer value.

Outrage about Irish Water appears as legitimate when it stems from the principle of consumer sovereignty, but not when it stems from the principle of democratic equality. So Irish Water’s spend on consultancy may give cause for scandal, but on the basis of value for money, not because it is symptomatic of kleptocracy: of private interests seizing hold of public goods in order to mine rich seams of profit.

To put it another way, the Irish Water public relations campaign, which explicitly sought to change people’s mindsets regarding water from that of a citizen to that of a consumer, gets plain sailing in Ireland’s media.

What makes for plain sailing is not just the coverage of the story itself, but the general absence, in Ireland’s media, of any concern with democratic entitlements, beyond the right to vote (though not the right to expect that one’s vote should have an effect). You only have to look at the size of the business or property sections of the Irish Times or the Irish Independent, and compare them to the amount of space devoted to the concerns of wage workers -salary levels, employment rights, public services- to see where the interests of these institutions lie. You see these interests also manifest in the coverage of politics: politics is a professional activity subject to the occasional scrutiny of a sedentary electorate, not everyday people taking to the streets.

The concern with ‘political reform’ and with whatever happened to the ‘democratic revolution’, so much to the fore in recent days, is helping to cast a veil over what is really happening with Irish Water.

In reality, Irish Water is the appropriation of public resources for private ends. As Gene Kerrigan noted in the Sunday Independent this week, the legislation establishing Irish Water specifically allows for privatisation, at the behest of the Minister for Finance. Given that Ireland’s Ministers for Finance act in reality as Finance’s Ministers for Ireland, Irish Water is intended as a crucial step towards full-blown privatisation.

A more rigorous questioning of the term ‘democratic revolution’ might be: since when did democracy entail selling off public resources in the interests of profit, at the behest of unelected international entities? And, as a consequence, what kind of action is legitimate when such things occur?

Well, if you think politics is a matter for men -and occasionally women- in suits, and the only worry is whether such figures are behaving appropriately, you don’t need to worry your head about the likes of that. More time to spend on working out how much it costs each time you flush your loo.

If, on the other hand, you think that upholding basic principles of equality and solidarity requires more than expecting Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach who opens private hospitals, to do it on your behalf, then you have to take matters into your own hands.

That, in essence, is what protesters on estates across Dublin and beyond have been doing, driven by the unbearable financial pressure that the imposition of water charges will entail. In response, the Gardaí have been deployed to ensure kleptocracy goes unimpeded.

The central figure of the ‘democratic revolution’, Enda Kenny, tried to claim in the Dáil today, when challenged about Garda arrests of peaceful protesters, that the protests were the work of nefarious outsiders who were disturbing the locals who merely wished to get on with their lives and let the Irish Water contractors get on with their work. The kind of people, one imagines, like the man featured in yesterday’s RTÉ radio report, who was recorded receiving the gift of a half dozen free range eggs from an Irish Water contractor.

The reality of Ireland, right now, is that the people who are actually maintaining the kind of democratic resistance that gave Ireland some semblance of democratic institutions in the first place, are being criminalised by the government.

What is more, they are ignored, when not bitterly condemned, by middle class liberals who dribble on interminably about standards in public life but take fright whenever the public actually materialises on the streets. It is ordinary people in estates across Dublin and beyond who are acting to restore some element of democracy to life in Ireland, whereas conventional wisdom would be happy to see it flushed down the toilet. For a reasonable fee, of course: these things have to be paid for, after all.


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