Archive for November 26th, 2008


On the subject of catastrophes, I watched Catastrophe, presented by Tony Robinson the other night. Despite the literally earth-shattering subject matter (a giant asteroid that hit the earth, resulting in the moon and life on earth) and the impressively vivid graphics there is something exceedingly boring about these programmes.

The presenters were full of gushing descriptions of the scale of what happened: one patch of fossilized something or other was (IIRC) four billion years old! Tidal waves eight miles high! (Maybe it was less than that, I dunno) And – if it wasn’t for all this, there would never have been life on earth!! OMFG!!!

Big deal. They were also talking about how generally violent the earth was way back then. But how could you have violence if there were no humans about? A wind is violent only in so far as it violates something that relates to human experience. But if there are no humans about, nothing is violent. The same applies to catastrophes. They only exist in human terms. If there are no humans around to apply the terms, there are no catastrophes.

And then they were talking about the mile high tides (or maybe mile long amino acid chains, I was falling asleep at this stage). But miles didn’t exist back then, because humans didn’t exist. I know you could argue that if humans had been there, then they would have recognised the tides as being miles high. But my point is that it is simply inconceivable for humans to have been there, because all this turbulence was a precondition for the generation of human life and by extension the concept of miles. Yeah, so maybe you can develop some sort of time machine that permits you to go back and say ‘verily, them tidal waves were miles high’. But why bother? The fact that they were miles high was of no consequence whatsoever to the people there at the time because there were no people there at the time.

I know that I’m engaging in some rather sloppy argumentation here. I guess it’s just a symptom of the fact that I find inquiry into the origins of the world so boring. So there was a load of matter around, a few million years of crash bang wallop, and then stone the crows, here comes homo sapiens. Then at some stage in the future, crash bang wallop, bye bye moustaches and angle grinders.

Part of it, I guess, is a bitterness at how many people engage in talk about the ‘sheer wonder’ of the universe and its infinite complexity. This is the sort of crack Dawkins gets up to in substitution of religion. For me, the fact that it is infinitely complex renders it uniformly boring.

Suppose the human species ends, as it probably will. No doubt worlds will continue to collide, and there will be plenty of big tidal waves about the place. Do people think about this and say ‘imagine the massive catastrophes there’s gonna be when we’re not around any more’? Of course not. The same principle of classification should apply to whatever happened before we were around.

Of Bicycles and Treachery

A curious article in today’s Irish Times by Sarah Carey, the gist of it is that women should be grateful to the European Union for it was through the EEC that, among other beneficial measures, the marriage bar was lifted. As a consequence, women should vote Yes when (it does seem to be fast becoming a matter of when, doesn’t it?) the next referendum comes around.

Note to women: you owe the EU more than you think – The Irish Times – Wed, Nov 26, 2008

What astonishes me is not only that women have forgotten how recently they were liberated from these draconian laws, but also that they’ve blotted out the identity of their liberators.


Though Ireland possessed a small band of vocal feminists, deliverance did not come from domestic forces but from the so-called bureaucrats in Brussels. Yet here we are, celebrating Nell McCafferty’s nakedness in the RHA, but treacherously turning on the political institution to whom we owe much of our freedom. Nell’s consciousness-raising was always important – but it was European law that gave us equal pay for equal work. Indulging Nell with a chuckle while giving Europe the two fingers does our sex no service.

The view expressed here seems to be that Irish women in general owe the greater degree of freedom they now enjoy to the entity that formally delivered it, and the word ‘owe’ in this context implies some form of obligation: to vote No to Lisbon is a form of treachery.

The logic underpinning these statements is that if the state, in this case in the form of the European Union, provides you with something to which you are entitled anyway because it is your right as a human being, then you should be grateful to it, and not do things that might displease it.

By the same logic, African Americans should refrain from displeasing the office of the President of the United States, since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation contributed to the abolition of slavery. And, it follows, perhaps Irish people should also show a degree of deferential gratitude and compliance to Britain for its legacy of institutions and infrastructure.

But whilst it’s certainly true that the European Union has been and may continue to be a useful instrument for enforcing certain basic protections and guarantees, it is still only an instrument. No-one owes their freedom to an instrument. Bicycles played a significant role in the emancipation of women, but no-one would propose, even half-heartedly, that women should show gratitude to bicycles and not act treacherously toward them.

In fact, no-one owes their freedom to anything. And the interesting thing about instruments is who controls them and how they are used.

The article continues:

If you think 1973 is ancient history, peruse the list of other European laws that lifted women out of their dependency status: maternity leave, maternity pay, parental leave, anti-sexual discrimination laws and health and safety directives for pregnant and breastfeeding workers. Do you think one item on that list would have been offered up graciously by our penny-pinching, socially conservative governments? Even today, other issues that women fret about, like food safety, consumer rights or the rights of part-time workers – of whom women constitute a considerable number – are driven by the EU.

There are echoes here of Colm Tóibín’s Guardian article in the aftermath of the Treaty defeat:

I support the European project as a way of protecting me from Irish politicians. I voted for Lisbon, not because I wanted to follow the Irish political establishment but because I despise it and need protection from it.

For me, this is probably the most compelling argument for an Irish citizen to have voted Yes in the Lisbon Treaty referendum: that greater European integration delivers greater freedom, in that it might provide formal protection against the depredations of a socially conservative and rapacious Irish ruling elite. It is certainly hard to argue that the developments outlined above would have happened as a matter of course had Ireland not joined the EEC.

Somewhat tragically, however, voting Yes on these grounds would appear to involve a pragmatic acceptance that one form of domination is preferable to another.

That is the case for me at least, since I was and remain largely unconvinced that on the whole the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty delivered greater control over the state and one’s productive life to each individual. The matter under consideration here, given the fact that there’s always a possibility of expanding your freedom by wresting greater influence over the machinery of the Irish state through struggle and organising, is whether you should surrender some of your autonomy in order to save yourself from yourself.

That is the line Sarah Carey appears to take:

Funny, but reducing our ability to stop EU decisions sounds like a plus
to me. What if O’Leary had had the power to stop equal pay? Slagging off Brussels is a cheap shot, especially when that’s exactly where everyone from women to environmentalists to homosexuals rush when they want to stop Irish decisions which are not in their interest. The ability of Brussels to override our laws is exactly what Irish people, particularly women, gain most from membership of the EU.

The nature of national institutions is so dreadful, then, that although there might be some potential for changing it from below, it’s more effective to opt in favour a set of supra-national institutions which, even though you may exercise less control over them, can keep the national institutions in line and change them from above.

As I said, it’s a compelling argument, but to my mind, not a convincing one. It depends largely on faith and intuition that the character of the institutions is both essentially benign and unchanging.

But as mentioned earlier, what matters is who controls the institutions and how they are used. Will they function democratically, or will they function primarily in the interests of privileged elites? If you concede autonomy, giving people the power to make decisions on your behalf with scant consultation, how much will it cost to get it back when you need it?

The conclusion is quite sanguine, and cheerily ignores such considerations:

Does gratitude to Europe for victories on equality issues create an obligation for future loyalty? I say the past is a good guide to the future. Who do you trust to vindicate your rights: the Irish State or the Brussels bureaucrats? Based on the track record, Brussels is the sound winner.

It’s not at all axiomatic that the past is a good guide to the future, especially when it comes to thinking about states and their institutions, since their character is always determined by whoever exercises control over them, and in whose interests they act. At the risk of appearing Godwin-tastic, the Weimar Republic is a good example of how the future is not necessarily a repetition of the past.

Anyhow, the principle that you should be loyal to an institution on account of how it has served you in the past is a recipe for tyranny. It would be wiser to look at current developments, and draw your conclusions from that.

To give an example of how the European Union may not be consonant with freedom, consider the analysis in this El País article on the prospects for the European social model (translation mine):

The directive consecrates the freedom of choice for the
worker, as an individual, to negotiate his working hours. But it is a
theoretical freedom, because by doing away with collective bargaining
in that decisive aspect, it breaks an essential balance in the (social)
model, and in practice forces workers to assent to whatever the demands
of their employers are. On the matter of working hours, the directive moves
towards the demolition of labour law which underpinned the social
stability recorded for decades in Europe.

It is true that the norm only permits, and does not impose
a working week of 60-65 hours, such that in countries such as ours, it
will not be put in place. But its application in other member states
will not be inocuous, because this disharmonization will artificially
modify unit labour costs, and will automatically become a powerful
lever in industrial offshoring.

Funny, but reducing our ability to stop such EU decisions does not sound like a plus to me.

If anyone had argued convincingly that the Lisbon Treaty in itself delivered greater freedom for citizens, in terms of (say) each individual exercising greater control over her own productive life, the referendum would have passed with ease. But no-one did, because a) it’s probably not true; b) many of the people doing the promotion had no interest in arguing such a thing anyway.

What we had instead was a presentation of the treaty in terms of a set of minor adjustments to make the institutions run more smoothly: a more effective and efficient Europe and so on. Yet the consequences of not making these supposed minor adjustments were and are presented as catastrophic for Ireland.

If I’m wrong, and in fact, the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty will deliver everyone more freedom, then surely -given the huge support given to the referendum campaign by the majority of political parties, business groups and media outlets- this could be easily demonstrated, and a large majority of people would vote for it.

But if this can’t be easily demonstrated, it’s not because European Union institutions have an obscurely exquisite charm to them that prevents ordinary people from easily grasping what they do.

The point is that unless ordinary people can easily grasp what they do, and know how to exercise sufficient control and influence over them, EU institutions are not sufficiently democratic in function.

Most people, on both sides of the debate, are well aware of what’s frequently termed the democratic deficit. Attend any EU-funded course on EU law and you’ll be taught about it. Yet despite the claims being made for the EU in this IT article, there was no real talk, in pro-treaty advocacy, of greater freedom arising from a Yes vote, even though there were some provisions in the treaty for improving democratic oversight.

Honest advocacy for a Yes vote was performed, at best, in terms of tragic pragmatism (yes, these are real problems, but nothing’s perfect, let’s get it out of the way, and let’s get down to the real business), or at worst, in terms of the horrendous consequences of not voting Yes (if we don’t vote Yes, we will lose our freedoms, we will be outcasts living in financial ruin).

The former requires a temporary suspension of democracy in order to have more of it in future: a risky business at best. The latter pretty much accepts that the vote has nothing to do with democracy.

Neither casts the European Union in a very good light. But coercion by fear and moral blackmail can be effective, if only temporarily so, so it may well turn out that a second referendum gets passed.

Yet one could hardly say, if this happens, that ‘the Brussels bureaucrats’ in whom both gratitude and faith should be placed, will have derived their just powers from the consent of the governed, which would be a fairly modest condition for halfway decent government.

Then what would happen? Would it become common practice to denounce any opposition to undemocratic institutions and their actions as (anti-European) ‘treachery’?

If so, prospects for democracy within the European Union would be dim, however rosy its past might appear.

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November 2008