Monthly Archives: July 2017

On Leo-liberalism


When Leo Varadkar is hailed as ‘refreshing’ and ‘straight-talking’ by commentators and journalists, it is because he’s saying things that they wish they could say, but are hampered in doing so, whether by polite convention or broader public opinion. It comes as a minor thrill, in these quarters, for the reactionary character of elite Irish opinion to be properly let off the leash from time to time.

Varadkar’s elevation to Taoiseach, elected only by a set of reactionary TDs, has brought with it a repackaging of the most regressive aspects of establishment politics -class condescension and contempt, entitled arrogance, and smug vindictiveness- as shiny, enlightened centrism.

Whereas his predecessors in the role of Taoiseach, at least as far back as I can remember, were able to reconcile, to some extent, the task of serving ruling class interests with that of appealing to a wide cross-section of Irish society*, Varadkar embodies little more than the sneering insouciance of Dublin’s business elites and technocrats.

This is an individual who won over the TDs of his own party by squandering public money on a campaign to demonise recipients of social welfare, based on the fraudulent premise that welfare fraud is a burning issue, when the real burning issue is the class hatred that drives Fine Gael TDs and its wider membership. This is someone we can really get behind, they concluded.

Varadkar’s Dáil appearances since his appointment have been characteristically hollow and obnoxious, a Trinity debating chamber equivalent of the Golden Cleric award. It came as no surprise that yesterday he was dismissive of Paul Murphy’s call for a public inquiry into the plain evidence that multiple Gardaí provided identical false evidence for the Jobstown prosecution, and sought to upbraid Murphy for conduct ‘unbecoming’ for a TD. For Varadkar, as for the rest of his party, undermining the left is a national duty: where’s the problem? Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, ever anxious to show how his party loves cops even more than Fine Gael, requested that Murphy be referred to the Dáil disciplinary committee for his remarks.

The other day, Varadkar defended his successor at the Department of Social Protection, Regina Doherty. The latter had complained to An Garda Síochána about an individual who was tweeting information -already available in the public domain- about Doherty’s business dealings. As a consequence, the individual, Catherine Kelly, a US-based academic, was approached by plain-clothes gardaí at Dublin Airport. This was a “private matter, not one of public policy”, Varadkar said.

Bollocks. Varadkar’s high-minded distinction between the public and the private was nowhere to be seen yesterday when he conducted a character assassination on NUI academic Rory Hearne, who had co-authored a report on family homelessness in Ireland, after the report, and the claim that newly established family hubs supposed to address homelessness might become become a new instance of Direct Provision-style incarceration, were raised at Dáil questions by Joan Collins TD.

Instead of addressing the implications of the report, Varadkar spoke about how Hearne had been an election candidate for “one of the left-wing groups” and recounted how he had found him “less than pleasant” at a running event in the Phoenix Park, and how the encounter was “not the kind of polite conversation I would expect from a university academic”.

Whatever the content of the conversation cited, no-one is obliged to be pleasant to Leo Varadkar or give him the polite conversation he expects, whether in private or in his public role as head of government. What was striking here is how Varadkar dispensed with the polite fiction that the head of government is first and foremost a public servant and hence not entitled to use the Dáil to engage in attacks on members of the public. There will be no referral to the disciplinary committee, of course, since attacks on the left, and attacks on ideas appearing to come from the left, have carte blanche.  Here that we find the truth of the ‘centrism’ in which Varadkar cloaks himself and that cheers the hearts of official Ireland: behind its proclamation that there is ‘no longer left nor right’ is a signal that it is open season on the left, and, by extension, on any vestige of social equality, democratic accountability, and any intellectual work that does not serve the ends of power.


*Clearly I had repressed all memory of John Bruton at the time of writing.


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A life enough in itself: the revenge of the ‘values of the south’

Pier Paolo Pasolini

Translation of an essay by Amador Fernández-Savater, originally published on the Interferencias blog on 30th June 2017.


A life enough in itself: the revenge of the ‘values of the south’

In the 1970s, the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini proposed thinking about political conflict as a contest that was fundamentally anthropological: between different ways of being, sensibilities, ideas about happiness. A political force is nothing (it has no force) if it is not rooted in a world that rivals the dominant one in terms of desirable forms of life.

Whereas the homini politici of his day (party leaders, vanguard militants, critical theorists) looked toward state power as the privileged site for social transformation (one takes power and changes society from above) Pasolini warned -with poetic, seismological sensitivity – that capitalism was advancing through a process of cultural homologation that laid waste to those other worlds (peasant, proletarian, subproletarian) by infecting them with consumerist values and models ‘horizontally’: through fashion, advertising, news, mass culture, etc. This new power does not emanate, irradiate or descend from a central location, but rather spreads ‘indirectly, in the lived, the existential, the concrete’, said Pasolini.

In dress and in walking, in seriousness and in smiles, in gesticulation and behaviours, the poet decoded the signs of an ‘anthropological mutation’ underway: the consumerist revolution. Trying to halt it from political power would be like trying to hold back a flood with a firehose. It is not possible to impose other contents or other outcomes within the same framework of accumulation and growth. Rather it is the reverse: it is the mode of production-consumption that will set the boundaries of political power. One civilisation can only be stopped with another. Other ways of dressing and walking will be needed, another seriousness and other smiles, another gesticulation and other behaviours.

The political contest (the one that is not a mere game of thrones) expresses an ‘ethical clash’ between different ideas about life, or even better, about the good life. Not ideas that float around and are declared rhetorically, but rather practical ideas: made flesh, materialised, inscribed in the most everyday acts and appliances (Facebook, Uber and Airbnb are figures of desire, hence their strength). What might an anthropological view tell us about politics? What worlds are colliding today? In what ethical clashes over the good life might transformative political actions come to the surface?

The old spirit of capitalism

Let’s take a step back. Where did the idea of organising the whole of life around work, efficiency and productivity come from? According to Max Weber, bourgeois culture found its origin, its engine and fuel in the Protestant ethic (especially that of ascetic Protestantism). Through the re-conception of work as “profession” and through the theory of predestination (only in earthly success can we find signs of our salvation), a subjectivity is generated that puts money and enrichment at the centre of life, that aspires to the ‘rationalisation’ of our entire existence (the relation with time, the body, honour, the education of children), that condemns poverty as the worst of evils (‘choosing poverty is like choosing illness’), etc.

This subjectivity is not an ‘automatic reflex’ of economic objectivity, but a decisive element of ‘capitalist culture’ without which there is simply no capitalism. Only a new kind of imaginary and subjectivity (a new organisation of desire) could have sufficient force so as to break the ‘traditionalist mentality’ (which then reigned) according to which one does not live to work (this would be absurd), but rather one works to live, and if one has access to wealth (through one’s own work, or another’s, or good luck), one takes up contemplation or war, play or hunting, sleeping soundly or the sensual enjoyment of life, but it does not come into one’s head to reinvest this wealth so as to go on accumulating.

Bourgeois culture is thus born as much through the potency of a religious imaginary that it then abandons, secularising its values: the sense of individual responsibility, the self-made man, meritocracy, credit, progress, the puritanical and severe sensibility, etc. Modernity has been predominantly a ‘culture of the North’: anglosaxon, masculine, white and Protestant. But the dominion of this imaginary (live to work, invest profits to make more profits, submit all aspects of life to a regimented and systematic control, etc.) has never been completed.

The sociability of the south

According to the sociologist (of everyday life) Michel Maffesoli there has always existed, insisting and resisting, a ‘sociability of the south’. A sociability that is diffuse, submerged and hidden, hard to see but present, capable of rebelling and becoming active should it be threatened. An informal dynamic (forms of bond, of subjective belonging, of making practical) decisive in everyday life, as a substrate or a ‘phreatic surface’ of collective existence.

What does this sociability of the south consist of? First, it is a vital, a-rational, impulse. A will to live, a wish to live. But not to live in any way, but by affirming a kind of bond, a kind of existence, a certain idea of happiness: an anthropological being-together. It is also a set of wisdoms and strategies for reproducing these bonds, these forms of life.

This ‘south’ originally and historically refers to Mediterranean and Latin American countries, but in the work of the author soon becomes a more movable notion regarding ‘values’ and ‘affective climates’ rather than a geographic location. In this sense, there is a ‘south in the north’, as there is also a ‘north in the south’). Cologne (lively, joyful, chatty, proletarian) would be the ‘south’ in Germany and financial Frankfurt, the ‘North’.

We can now pick out five ‘values’ (things that count) for this sociability of the south.

-first, the present: life does not stretch out ‘forwards’ (a future of salvation, or perfection) but is rather affirmed ‘now’. This certain lack of concern for tomorrow does not exclude (paradoxically) a stubbornness to reproduce and to last. The temporality of the sociability of the south is intense, not extended [extensa]: it focuses on ‘perservering in its being’.

-second, the bond: life happens in continuity with others, bound up with others, intertwined with others. Not only out of necessity, but also out of the pleasure of sharing. The most precious bond is the close one, nearby, within the reach of one’s hand (the tactile as a value). This ‘here’ does not separate us from what is ‘there’ (in the distance), but the reverse: it is through what we live ‘here’ that something from ‘there’ might resonate with us.

-third, the tragic: the assumption of the anarchy of what there is for what it is. It is not a matter of ‘solving’ or ‘overcoming’ what is given (uncertain, dark, manifold) but rather of knowing how to ‘hold it together’. A different relation then, with evil, with risk or death, which are not things to be eradicated (according to the reigning logics of control, securitization and total predictibility), but rather one flank of life (which can also be a force, a lever, if we know how to hold it together.

-fourth, the dionysian: not a life enclosed upon oneself (work, success, progress), but rather the ‘extatic’ life that seeks to go beyond itself through the enjoyment of the body, the love of the mask and disguise (appearances), fusion with the other in collective celebrations (musical, sporting, religous), etc. Excess, extravagance, dizziness, surrender, destruction: the ‘dionysian’ is the trying out of otherness.

-finally, the double-dealing: not the passion for the upright, the straightforward and the explicit, but rather for deviation, slyness, improvisation, nixers, cheek, duplicity, trickery, toying with the law and norms, informal strategies of conservation and survival (for me and mine). Not the passion for correcting and putting things right, but rather for trying one’s luck, dummying, dribbling, and outwitting.


The crisis as opportunity

Neoliberal economists make their own ‘anthropological’ reading of the world and conclude that the economic crisis of 2008 has to do with ‘insufficient geographical mobility’, ‘limited entrepreneurial spirit’, the ‘family safety net’, ‘informal work’, or ‘indifference (or even repugnance) towards wealth creation’ that are still too present in the countries of the south (the so-called PIGS: Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, none of them Protestant countries, by the way). In the reflected light of such analyses, we see the sociability of the south in action.

Might we read the neoliberal oversight of the crisis as an attempt to wipe out once and for all all these ‘cultural shortcomings’ and thereby accelerate the ‘world to come of capital’ (Laval and Dardot)? The debt crisis would in this way be the perfect opportunity to unleash the ‘creative destruction’ of all that which, inside and outside ourselves, prevents us from thinking about ourselves and acting like simple social atoms, boundless egocentric particles, machines for egoistic calculation. Customs and bonds, attachments and solidarities.

By eliminating social protections, by weakening labour rights, by promoting widespread indebtedness of students and families, by rendering people precarious, reducing wages and social spending, the goal is to promote a ‘paddle your own canoe’ and destroy everything that allows people any measure of freedom with regard to the market. All that there is between beings and makes them something more than ‘elementary particles’ in competition: links of a thousand kinds, rights won, places of life, public and common resources, networks of solidarity and support, non-market circuits of goods and services etc. The material basis of any kind of autonomy. To govern today consists of eroding that between, that dense knot of bonds, affects, mutual support.

But just when this was to be ‘extirpated’, the sociability of the south flexed and activated. In Spain of the crisis there has been a proliferation, for example, of informal micro-groups of solidarity and mutual support (family, neighbourhood, friendships) that have tempered the devastating effects of the neoliberal management of the crisis: fear, solitude and despair. A proliferation that is itself a challenge to the liberal-individualist paradigm: “each to his own”.

Just when we were told that we ‘had lived beyond our means’ and it was now time to repent and pay, the values of the south take their revenge, affirming and spreading other ideas about wealth and happiness: based more in the present than in the future, in bonds rather than in solitude, in the time available and not in life for work, in empathy and not in competition, in the enjoyment of humour rather than in guilt for debt.


The new spirit of capitalism

Even more difficult. According to certain authors, we might be making the passage today towards the overcoming (intensification, radicalisation?) of the old ‘spirit’ of capitalism whose origins were studied by Weber.

For example, according to Franco Berardi (Bifo), the bourgeoisie still “lived in bonds” (with a community, places, physical goods, a working class it could not get rid of, the relation between value and labour time). However, financial capitalism is much more abstract: it does not identify with any place, with any population in particular, with any kind of labour, with any rule, even if its decisions have (devastating) consequences on places, populations, workers, etc.

Elsewhere, according to Christian Laval and Pierre Dardot, this logic of infinite accumulation of capital has today become a ‘subjective modality’. What does this mean? Well, the ‘homo economicus’ (defined by prudence, steadiness, equilibrium in exchanges, happiness without excesses, balance in strivings and pleasures) has been replaced by the ‘entrepreneur of oneself’ (defined by competition and constant self-transcendence living in risk, going beyond oneself, assuming a permanent disequilibrium, never resting or stopping, putting all one’s enjoyment into self-transcendence). One expression summarises, according to the French authors, the subjective type of today’s capitalism: “more, always”. The enjoyment of limitlessness.

In this transformation we will surely have to re-evaluate the resistance presented by the ‘sociability of the south’, when for example capitalist culture no longer demands the repression of the affective/passionate, but rather its complete instrumentalisation in the service of the logic of profit: the instrumentalisation of the intimate. But without doubt the affirmation of a ‘life that is enough in itself’ remains absolutely subversive (more than ever?). A life that does not seek to extract and accumulate “more, always”, but that is lived in the enjoyment of caring and sharing, as closely as possible, all that has been given to us, here and now.

The insurrection of the sociability of the south would consist in affirming politically this other idea of happiness, this subterranean potency, this sea swelling beneath.

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