Monthly Archives: January 2015

Fear and Anger, and the Spectre of a New Beginning


From Dublin Opinion, 2011

Michael D Higgins got called a “midget” and a “parasite” last Friday. Somehow, it has only made its way into the papers and onto the airwaves on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. It has elicited comment from the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and from Health Minister Leo Varadkar. Labour Party Senator Lorraine Higgins ventured on Today With Sean O’Rourke that it was an ‘attack on democracy’ Liveline was devoted to the topic today, two days before Funny Friday on the 30th of January, but also, and more importantly, three days in advance of another round of anti-water charges mobilisations, this Saturday, 31st January.

Why has it happened thus? You don’t need to be a genius to work out that the concern here, on the part of both the media and the political establishment, is not some grievous act of lèse-majesté from which they have spent the last 5 days reeling in shock with the smelling salts only now kicking in. Nor is it horror at the use of ableist abuse. Rather, it is, purely and plainly, the potential for keeping numbers down on the 31st.

Did you notice that opinion polls of the 12th and 13th of January showed a rise in support for the coalition parties? As RTÉ noted at the time, ‘January is a month when Government parties fare slightly better in polls because of the Dáil break’. Before Christmas, however, support for the coalition was on the way down. One factor in this was revealed in a headline in the Irish Times noted on December 4th: Government parties pay price for water charges. When water charges are the focus of public attention, the government flounders. Hence the more the government can keep water charges off the agenda, the more it can diminish its sense of importance, the better its chances of remaining in power. Simple. As a consequence, it makes urgent sense, from its perspective, to strive to keep the rabble in line.

This concern was clear in the words of Leo Varadkar on Morning Ireland today, when he said that “what strikes me, is that as the water protesters get fewer, they’re getting nastier”. Varadkar’s claim about the water protesters has no basis in fact. It is akin to saying there is less rain nowadays because it is not raining outside. Needless to say, his claim was not challenged by his interviewer.

Varadkar, moreover, like Lorraine Higgins, sought to criminalise dissent altogether. He claimed that the President was ‘above politics’ and that hence such protests were a de facto attack on the constitution. Needless to say, the contradiction in Varadkar’s claims -here was a Minister using the President for transparently political purposes– was left unprobed by the questioner.

I should stress here that it is not the content of the insult –“midget”, “parasite”, “traitor”- that Varadkar was denouncing as an attack on the constitution, but the very fact that the figure of the President was being challenged. It is important to remember that Varadkar –described last week in an Irish Times editorial as “such a refreshing and popular politician” with a “reputation for candour and straight talking” has form in intervening on the question of water. It is he who came up with the image of the “sinister fringe”. He spoke of how it “really bothered him” that people might protest about water charges when there were other things, like “Áras Attracta, the fact that there over 300 people on trollies this morning in our hospitals” that were far more important. Back in 2012 he claimed that people who did not pay the household charge –the household charge- would have their water cut off, and that a “bomb” would go off in Dublin unless bondholders were repaid in full. ‘Straight talking’. ‘Refreshing’. ‘Popular’.

Neither Varadkar nor Lorraine Higgins, for her part, had anything to say when her government colleague Charlie Flanagan, who is the Minister for Justice, let it be known on Twitter that another public representative was a “cunt”.

The idea that Michael D Higgins is “above politics” is contradicted somewhat by Higgins’s own pronouncements, which seldom receive more than the most superficial of treatment in the regime press. Michael D Higgins is to the regime media, roughly speaking, what the Pope is to the Iona Institute . An important figurehead, a symbol of authority and power, worth celebrating the fact of his popularity, but well worth studiously ignoring anything he has to say.

Consider, for instance, these remarks:

there are great risks inherent in both the very responses that might emerge from fear and anger among our citizens, and then too in the obvious potential for political exploitation of these passions

Which come from Michael D Higgins’s remarks to the Parliamentary Assembly to the Council of Europe, hier matin. These remarks, from Ireland’s supposed ‘first citizen’, will be given less media attention than a man giving a qualified apology for calling someone else a midget and a parasite.

What Varadkar is doing, of course, as are Enda Kenny and Lorraine Higgins, and the regime press, is political exploitation of fear and anger par excellence. They seek to locate the source of fear not in the institutions stripping people of their “effective enjoyment of social rights” (Michael D Higgins) such as the “modern panopticon” of ratings agencies, “not bound by any democratic requirement”, but in individuals whose anger brings them onto the streets.

There’s a Greek word for this: metonymy. They single out a part, and they make it stand in for the whole. Through this approach, the abusive language of a few is what really characterises the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to object to policies imposed by the government and produced a vertiginous collapse in the government’s credibility as a consequence. The message: don’t go onto the streets, they’ll eat you alive. What are you, some sort of thug?

What these double standards show is that the government has conclusively lost the political argument about water charges. It cannot argue that water charges are anything other than regressive. Hence it is seeking to sap numbers from vocal opposition to the charges, in the hope that resignation will set in, and it can hang onto power.

Fine Gael and Labour politicians in government must be especially conscious of the fact that the government in Greece, composed of politicians from its own European Parliamentary party groupings, met an ignominious end the other day, swept away by a political party buoyed aloft by militant social movements. The reverberations from this will continue for a long time. It is a major popular repudiation of the kind of policies exemplified in Ireland by the imposition of water charges, of the idea that debt must hold sway over life.

That such a thing might happen in Ireland is not at all unthinkable.  The prospect of the current political order being swept away is, in fact, a spectre that weighs heavier on the brain of ruling politicians and their scribes than it does on most people. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the creeping fear of a new beginning might turn these political animals into the most rabid of attack dogs.


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This Woman Just Explained Economics In A Nutshell. And It’s So Neo-Liberal It Hurts


A link keeps cropping up in my Twitter and Facebook feed. It is titled ‘This Woman Just Explained Economics In A Nutshell. And It’s So True It Hurts’. It is getting shared shitloads of times.

It hurts all right, but not because it explains economics in a nutshell. In fact, it doesn’t explain economics at all. Also, the woman mentioned in the title doesn’t even explain anything.

The text is supposed to be a kind of allegory for the financial crisis. It uses a familiar narrative account: that the crisis was caused by sub-prime lending on the part of greedy mortgage lenders, to people who were never going to be able to pay off their loans because they did not have the means to do so..

But instead of sub-prime lenders and poor people it uses a woman called Mary who runs a pub, and unemployed alcoholics. It does not locate the origin of the crisis in the US, which is where this narrative normally starts, but in Ireland. Why a woman? Why a pub? Why alcoholics? Why Ireland?

I don’t know the answer to these questions but it’s worth thinking about the effect of narrating the crisis in these terms. The initial responsibility in this account is placed upon a woman. Now, when you imagine a woman in Ireland called Mary, the chances are you imagine a white woman. But women of colour in the US were disproportionate targets of sub-prime lending. Whilst everyone else in this nutshell explanation -the “young and dynamic vice-president” at the bank, the naive investors, the risk manager, the wine supplier etc all go nameless, Mary is named repeatedly. She is the linchpin of the tale. Why is this?

What about the unemployed alcoholics? A few things jump to mind here. First of all, the nutshell account contrasts the unemployed alcoholics with ’employed, middle-class non-drinkers who have never been in Mary’s bar’ who end up paying more taxes as a consequence of bank bailouts. So this is a tale of injustice, and the suggestion is that whereas punishment might have been justified both for bankers and unemployed alcoholics, there was certainly no justification for punishing those who kept their appetites in check and who worked hard.

Then there is the difference between shelter and alcohol. Shelter is commonly recognised as a fundamental human necessity, and, among the more enlightened parts of humanity, a right. Alcohol is not. Some months ago, an economist appeared on a news programme on the Irish public broadcaster, RTÉ. He said that water charges were necessary because you wouldn’t let people drink free beer. If you have children, I am sure that you, like me, regularly bathe your children in beer, and brush your teeth with it.

The idea that sub-prime borrowers were insatiable in their desire for credit obscures a couple of important facts. David McNally notes in Global Slump that fully ’60 percent of those who received subprime loans actually qualified for less onerous mortgages’. So, sub-prime lending cannot be explained through a simple transaction, whereby one person finds a profitable way of meeting the insatiable, pathological desire of someone else. In reality, the whole structure of subprime mortgage lending was intended to bilk people, mainly poor people, and disproportionately people of colour. In the nutshell narrative, however, the racial dimension is wished away, because we are now in Ireland. And the class dimension is wished away too, because whereas the ‘unemployed alcoholics’ belong to no class, the ’employed non-drinkers’ are middle-class. So this ‘explanation of economics’ is firmly within the neoliberal imaginary of crony capitalism, regulators asleep at the wheel, we all partied (we’re in Ireland, and everybody loves a party in Ireland, right?), and so on. But more than that, it actually echoes the remarks of CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, whose “it’s time for another tea party” rant is thought of as a catalyst for the Tea Party movement.

How about this, Mr. President and new administration. Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers mortgages? Or would they like to at least buy buy cars, buy a house that is in foreclosure … give it to people who might have a chance to actually prosper down the road and reward people that can carry the water instead of drink the water?

Finally, none of this ‘explains economics’. In fact, despite its apparent disdain for expert opinion, it hides the role of economists, by having you believe they had nothing to do with creating the intellectual tools for financial deregulation and sub-prime mortgage products. And it tacitly suggests that whereas economics in 2015 is something unfathomably crazy and unjust, there was an economics of bygone days where ’employed, middle-class non-drinkers’ were the main object of concern, and we really need to get back to this, through proper regulation, through attending to the needs of the ‘squeezed middle’, and so on. To top it all, the idea that the funds for the bailout are obtained by taxes on the ’employed, middle-class non-drinkers’ obscures the fact that taxes are also levied on those who are unemployed -often in the form of regressive taxation that hit the poorest most, whether they fell prey to predatory lending or not- and says nothing about the withdrawal of public services -health care, education, transport, social supports- which have the same effect as taxation measures. Again, these hit the poorest most of all, but they also hit large sectors of the population habitually classified as ‘middle-class’ but working class in terms of lived reality. Thus the characterisation of the bailout reinforces the idea that there is no such thing as class, and also the idea that there is no such thing as social rights, or citizenship.

So, what initially appears like a populist samizdat against government and banking elites turns out to be a text that rallies support for neoliberal orthodoxy. Genius.

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A Note on Marxism and Freedom of Speech

In a discussion of one of my posts from a couple of days ago, Dan writes:

Overall, it seems to me a Marxist view of the world – and apologies in advance if I’m (unintentionally) mischaracterising your politics slightly – can be useful when critiquing the banks, the political system, or American foreign policy. But less useful when discussing other matters. In the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the key, and opposing, issues in play are religious fanaticism and freedom of speech. (Neither concept figures large in Marxist ideology, so your instinct appears to be to ignore or dismiss these aspects.) Issues like immigration, multiculturalism and the history of Western misdeeds in the Middle East are also relevant to the controversy to a certain degree. The perfidy of property ownership, however, seems to me to have fuck all to do with anything here. Freedom of speech is the fundamental principle of a free society. It is the surest defense against tyranny. Religious fanaticism is among the worst blights on the modern landscape. In the words of the late Pete Seeger then, which side are you on?

Clearly there are some matters where Marxist traditions of thought are of little use. Like when unblocking a drain, or making your home energy efficient. But I think Dan’s wrong to dismiss them when it comes to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I doubt they can be used to explain everything about it, like the ballistics, or the precise thought processes that went through the killers’ minds. On the particular issues that Dan cites, however, Marx and others along those lines do have interesting things to say. I’m referring to ideology.

Dan is right to say that neither ‘religious fanaticism’ nor ‘freedom of speech’ figure large in Marxist ideology (I’d just say Marxist thought). But the reason for this is that Marxist thought by and large (and not just Marxist thought) is very suspicious of allowing abstract ideas taking hold.

For Marx, writing in The German Ideology, the ruling ideas in every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class, which is also the ruling intellectual force. That’s not to say such ideas are the only ideas in circulation. It is just that the ruling class, when it comes to concepts like ‘religious fanaticism’ and ‘freedom of speech’, will seek to present its version as the only ‘rational, universally valid’ ones.  Hence when we talk about religious fanaticism and freedom of speech in the everyday, there’s a good chance we are talking about the ruling class’s version of those concepts. So, ‘religious fanatic’ will apply to political leaders in Iran –for example- but will far less likely apply to the rulers of Saudi Arabia or the Prime Minister of Israel, since the latter are strategic allies of ruling elites in the West. Which side are you on?

Dan thinks property ownership has fuck all to do with anything. But it is property ownership, perhaps above anything, that is the fundamental principle of the society in which he and I live. We appear to agree elsewhere in our discussion that the amount of money –a form of property- you have behind you has a large bearing on how free you are to speak about things. A media billionaire can say what he likes. His employees are not so free. In many parts of the world where freedom of speech is brandished as the highest of values, the words “let’s join a union”, for instance, can land you on the breadline.

Now, whilst Dan thinks that this sort of situation sucks, and so do I, where we differ is that I don’t think ‘well-at-least-it’s-not-North-Korea’ is a good enough justification for this state of affairs. For me, but not just me, this isn’t an adequate description of what a free society looks like. Marx also notes in the same text that in ‘ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is’. But when it comes to freedom of speech, or even just freedom, we are far more inclined by habit to accept the official merchandise as the genuine article.

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They should go ahead and publish the cartoons

I have changed my mind. It is time to throw complexity out the window. All newspapers in Europe ought to publish those Charlie Hebdo images. No, I don’t know which ones precisely and I don’t know why I just said Europe and didn’t include Africa or Asia or Latin America.

Anyway, all newspapers in Europe, including: all those that support capitalism and the rule of the market; all those that are owned by rich white men; all those with a history of publishing scare stories about Muslims; all those that generate consent for the bombing and occupation of predominantly Muslim countries by Western forces; all those that are indifferent to the systematic unravelling of Europe’s democratic fabric that was forged through decades of struggle from below, and through the struggle against fascism; -I think I’ve covered about 90% of newspapers and media outlets here- all these, and the rest, should publish those images.

When I say they should publish those images, I make no demand for them to provide any kind of background information about the original context in which they were published. They have no duty to inform in this regard. I make no demand for them to consider the effect their publication might have on people who may be interpreted as being represented in the cartoons. Not on Muslims in general, not on Muslims living in areas where their mosques might get bombed, and certainly not on people whose appearance might lead them to be identified with a picture of pregnant Boko Haram slaves demanding their government benefits. No: to make any such consideration would be a betrayal of free expression, the bedrock of our free society.

In calling on newspapers and other outlets to publish these images, I make no demand that any thought should be given to the way newspapers and other media institutions actually shape public opinion. I make no demand that any thought be given to suggestions that the ruling powers in countries like US, France, and the UK are only too happy to present themselves as beacons of civilisation, and their weapons of war as the means of bringing democracy, enlightenment and freedom of expression to other benighted regions. I make no demand of the rich men who own newspapers that they or their employees bring any history into it other than the history of attacks on free expression perpetrated by Muslims. Those perpetrated by the governments of the European countries in question, for example, are not the issue here. Also the history of Western imperialism, colonialism and racism need not be spoken about here. As a white European, I should know.

I should also stress, in calling on these institutions to publish these images, that they make no effort to distinguish between the people and the State. Britain is David Cameron. France is François Hollande. Germany is Angela Merkel. Whatever they say is good enough for the whole of the people they represent. The threat to free expression is so urgent, so overwhelming, that any plurality, diversity or dissenting views could prove fatal.

Then, once the images have been published and freedom of expression has been protected, we need never speak of any of this again, and the world will be safe again for satire. Do not fail us, journalists!

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Notes on the “freedom to offend”

What shape does offence take? How do you distinguish offence from other emotions and affects? It’s common to imagine that people carry out murders, and, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, a massacre, because they were “offended” by something that got said, something published. But what if such people aren’t offended at all? If you’re going to riddle someone with bullets, wouldn’t your threshold for material that is hard to take need to be fairly low to begin with?

Then there is the attribution of “rage”, cf “The Roots of Muslim Rage” by Bernard Lewis. But if you’re going to plan a massacre at a magazine publisher it probably isn’t rage you require, but dispassionate calm. Those calling for widespread reproduction of Charlie Hebdo cartoons -and particularly the ones they have telepathically identified as the root of the offence- seem to think that this is the last thing the killers want.

Is it? If I was going to shoot a load of people at a magazine dead, I would have a fairly good idea what the likely public response would be, especially if I was from that country, which is apparently the case with the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo killings. And maybe, if I was planning on such an action, I would like to see that response, and then the response it might rouse in others too.

I saw someone yesterday proclaiming that the right to freedom of expression was the right upon which all other freedoms are based. Hence the importance of reproducing Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and in particular the ones imagined to have produced the “offence”. But Walter Benjamin once wrote that

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.

So there is no particular link between democratic rights and free expression. You can still say whatever you like in undemocratic regimes provided it has no effect upon the regime of property.

Whilst it is an atrocious crime to execute cartoonists, it should not be assumed that such cartoonists, because they were executed, produced material that was either a threat or offensive to the people who pulled the trigger. Moreover, it does not follow that giving vent to “free expression”, in defence of the “freedom to offend”, without regard for the effects on marginalised and demonised minorities, is in any way a defence of democracy. It is far more likely, in fact, to be a defence of the more repressive elements of the ruling powers, which lay claim to the mantle of democracy whilst preserving freedom for a select few.  The European rulers united in solidarity on our behalf today over the attack on Charlie Hebdo and “our values” and “our way of life” will swiftly press on, their step emboldened, with the expansion of a repressive and racist security apparatus, with the criminalisation of democratic protest, and with the destruction of social rights that were won in Europe through long decades of democratic and anti-fascist struggle.


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