This weekend Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, referring to his predecessor Brian Cowen’s encounter last week with several citizens on the streets of Dublin as he headed for his car, described people who ‘blatantly restrict the freedom of movement’ as ‘essentially fascist in their approach to politics and society’. He is not the first politician in recent times to liken developments on the streets to fascism: when Joan Burton’s car was not allowed to leave Jobstown due to a sit-down blockade, she voiced her worries about the “parallels with fascism”.
If you watch the video of Cowen making his way to his car, you may be disappointed at the overall lack of the standard images associated with fascism. There is no street violence. There are no Storm Troopers, no political uniforms. There is no exaltation of a leader. No targeting of socialists, no targeting of ethnic minority groups identified as the national enemy. In fact, there is no evidence of Brian Cowen’s movement being restricted. Indeed, contrary to the ideas of the strong dominating the weak that tend to characterise fascist movements, the people confronting Cowen seem rather concerned with the poor and with homeless people dying on the streets. There are also brightly coloured balloons bouncing around, which seem a poor substitute for a swastika or suchlike.
There is a woman who tells Cowen that “Denis loves you”. This is a reference to the fact that Brian Cowen, the former Taoiseach, the former Minister for Finance, the former Minister for Health, and the former Minister of Labour, now sits on the board of the Beacon Hospital Group, as well as the Topaz Group, both owned by billionaire Denis O’Brien. Rather than welcoming the fact that a political leader has found common cause with big business, rather than being cheered at the thought of swiftly revolving doors between political office and the commanding heights of the economy, they seem quite disturbed by it. This is a very bad example of fascism.
Perhaps the best case that can be made that this is an “essentially fascist” event is the way in which the protesters do nothing to harm Cowen’s black Mercedes-Benz. This is, I am sure you will agree, not a very good case.
Confronting public figures with a demand for accountability when they are conducting their private affairs is not something peculiar to Ireland. In Spanish-speaking countries this is known as an escrache. The escrache is said to originate in Argentina, where it was used to identify and shame people who had participated in the repression conducted there by the military dictatorship. The group H.I.J.O.S., composed of families of the disappeared, of political prisoners, of state murder victims, had a slogan that said: “if there is no justice, let us see to it that the country becomes their prison.”
Also at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis this weekend, a vote was held to maintain the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution. A vote in favour of maintaining it was passed, but only a small minority of those who attended the Ard Fheis actually voted. But it was party policy already anyway, so there was no need to vote.
Some questions. Suppose the protesters had blocked Cowen’s path and prevented him from getting into his car. Suppose they had demanded he surrender one of his kidneys, on pain of imprisonment, because his kidney was needed to preserve human life. Would such a restriction on freedom of movement be “essentially fascist” in its approach to politics and society? Come on Cowen, give us one of your kidneys, or we’ll put you in jail. What do you reckon: fascist, or not? You know the old fascist formulation by Mussolini: everything in the State, nothing outside the State. Suppose the protesters claimed Cowen’s kidneys, or his liver, were state property and therefore subordinate to the primacy of the group and the welfare of the nation. Would that have been fascist? It certainly sounds more fascist. Not to worry though: Brian Cowen’s internal organs are safe from State interference. He is, after all, a former Taoiseach. We can’t say the same, however, for any woman who might become pregnant.
In his Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton, surveying analyses of fascism, highlighted how one of the ‘mobilising passions’ of fascism identified was ‘the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny’. Paxton wisely notes that this kind of thing is present in non-fascist societies too. Still. make u think.
There is a fascism of the imagination, and there is the fascist element to reality. In Micheál Martin’s case, but in Irish political life more generally, the former is conjured up so that it hides the dimensions of the latter.