When I referred to the sanctimonious dirtbird Aer Lingus CEO and his own brand of ‘we’-talk last week, and tried to show how it was consistent with a corporatist world-view, I didn’t mean to imply that such talk is the preserve, or singularly the product of, the modern corporation. I’m more inclined to say that it is an embedded practice in the politics of the nation-state, and also of the church. Which is not to say that the form of the modern corporation has no influence on political language; of course it has – witness the established practice of refererring to Ireland Inc., without a hint of irony, from the floor of the Dáil (that corporations are tyrannies poses no problem for such robust democrats).
Most of the time, I think the ‘we’-talk is, at root, a rhetorical ploy to deny any sense of power imbalance, and as such it is part of a power struggle.
But first, the honourable exceptions. If you make the claim that ‘we’, as citizens, have basic rights to health, education and welfare and that the state needs to provide for these rights, then you’re making a statement about equality. Depending on where and when you say it, it may refer to some sort of power imbalance (as in the case of Ireland 2009), and may even be part of a power struggle. But is this ‘we’-talk? No. It can be just another way of saying that I have basic rights, and if I have them, then there is no reason why everyone else should not have them. You might be lending your position more enunciatory power by talking about ‘we’, but there is nothing particularly demagogic about it.
In fact, if you’re confronted with the scenario that many of your fellow citizens are being denied basic rights, it’s probably morally incumbent on you, if you place any sort of importance on your rights, to consciously and actively identify with these citizens. Adam Smith, for instance, talks about how ‘he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens’. It would be rather strange for someone to say, when confronted with the sight of government forces machine-gunning its citizens, “well, I shan’t presume to speak for the people getting riddled with bullets, they can speak for themselves, but speaking in a personal capacity, it would be a very bad idea if the government were to shoot me”. It seems far more honest and upstanding to say “we will not put up with this!”.
To repeat, this isn’t ‘we’-talk in the mode of the all-encompassing ‘me, Bono and Peter Sutherland’ variety: on the contrary, this ‘we’ is the introduction of difference, i.e. we are going to put a stop to you. Marx and Engels rejected the League of the Just’s slogan of “All Men are Brothers”, on the grounds that Marx considered there were lots of categories of people whom he did not wish to consider as brothers. And rightly so: your lot is unlikely to improve if you think that the man who gets rich from you having no option but to work 96 hours a week down a mine is your brother. Indeed, it’s quite easy to imagine captains of industry being fully at ease with all men becoming brothers, provided it happens on their terms.
Talking to a friend last week, the pair of us wondered what the origins of ‘we’-talk are in the Irish context, and why it seems to be so pronounced, so widespread, by comparison with other countries (a comparison based on intuition more than reliable empirical observation). At the time I thought that maybe the Catholic Church had something to do with it. Historically, there were churches with penny aisles and poor aisles, in which those capable of paying a penny to the collection would sit in the penny aisle, and those who could not did not, yet all were deemed part of the Body of Christ. Therefore ‘we’ were all brothers, and the priests preached to ‘us’ as such, apparently suspending class antagonisms for the most part at the church door -whatever the seating arrangements- to be resumed on the way out.
There’s probably something to this speculation, but it needs supplementing with the history of Irish nationalism. Pre-independence, Irish nationalism contained the most powerful and coherent means of making a demand for justice. Hence Connolly’s famous claim that ‘the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland and the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour’, or, the name Sinn Féin -we ourselves- both show how Irish nationalism is a means of introducing difference, not simply as an end in itself, but based on the conviction that the interests of the people of Ireland are not those of its British rulers, and that therefore Irish people shall take control of their own destiny. Post-independence, Irish nationalism takes a turn for the worse, as patriotic appeals to the ‘national interest’ get deployed to mask class antagonisms and to suppress dissent within the new nation-state, which is no less hypocritical than many nation-states, and in some ways a great deal more hypocritical than most (cf claims to cherish all of the children of the nation equally).
So in sum, whereas pre-independence, Irish nationalism introduces and expresses difference, post-independence it denies it, except in the case of keeping some foreign (i.e. British) devil at bay. This, along with the diligent preparation of the Catholic Church, creates a particularly fertile set of circumstances for ‘we’-talk among the ruling class as a means of control.
The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterised by universal self-deception and hypocrisy. The unconscious and conscious identification of their special interests with general interests and universal values…is equally obvious in the attitude of classes. The reason why privileged classes are more hypocritical than underprivileged ones [though sympathetic to Niebuhr's gist, I ought to highlight Raymond Williams's notes on 'underprivileged' - HG] is that special privilege can be defended in terms of the rational ideal of equal justice only, by proving that it contributes something to the good of the whole.
So, the maintenance of my privilege is good for me, but it’s also good for us. And, if the ending of my privilege is bad for me, it’s also bad for us. Niebuhr rightly notes that seeing your own interests as general interests isn’t necessarily a conscious identification. You may just be conditioned, educated, to be unable to see it any other way.