Fintan O’Toole has a pop at Peter Sutherland in today’s Irish Times. It’s hard not to approve of any attack on members of the ruling elite, even if these emanate from the pages of the newspaper of the ruling elite. And since the majority of people are going to be taken for a very rough and ever worsening ride in order to meet the demands of finance capital, there’s no harm in pointing out that one of its most powerful local figures is an egregious hypocrite. Or is there?
Although Sutherland is a figure of grotesque influence among elite circles, there is nothing particularly remarkable about his hypocrisy.
Reinhold Niehbuhr observed that the ‘moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterised by universal self-deception and hypocrisy’. For O’Toole to say that ‘precisely because (Sutherland) is idolised in the Irish business community, he had the opportunity to change the culture of Irish banking’ is to suggest that the ‘Irish business community’ could, in fact, have had as its idol a moral agent rather than an agent of capital accumulation. This is an absurdity: it is precisely on account of Sutherland’s capacity as an amoral wheel-greaser that he occupied that position in the first instance.
The illusion that Sutherland wishes to maintain is that there is a “we” that includes ordinary citizens and high-flyers of global finance in a shared pain. There is no such “we”.
There is just us and them.
But there is not just ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Because if the dividing line is one’s status as a high-flyer of global finance, then the ‘we’ of the ‘ordinary citizens’ contains an immense supporting cast of people whose interests are intimately tied to the prosperity of finance capitalists.
Such a binary opposition means the managers of large corporations and their lawyers, high-level government officials and politicians all sit comfortably among ‘us’ alongside O’Toole’s ‘old lady whose home help services are being slashed’.
Not only that: the ‘we’ of the ordinary citizen excludes people who don’t fall under the formal category of citizens, as is the case with migrant workers.
So, pointing the finger at the hypocrisy of global finance bigwigs, while ignoring their relation to aforementioned managers, lawyers, officials and politicians (and also the media professionals who legitimate the views of the likes of Sutherland by offering them a platform of authority), has a couple of important effects.
First, in so far as we are talking about a sermon -there’s nothing wrong with sermons as such- demanding greater moral agency in a newspaper with a target audience including those managers, lawyers, officials and politicians, it absolves these groups of any sort of responsibility, and invites them to continue deceiving themselves in their role enforcing the imperatives of finance capital, since, it follows, they are mere ‘ordinary citizens’, and class antagonisms can be soothed with a balm of righteousness.
Second, in so far as the use of the category of ‘ordinary citizen’ refers to a relation to a State that exists in fact, and not some ideal citizenship of an all-inclusive State that does not exist, the effects of the predations of global finance high-flyers on those who fall outside that category -in the forms of racism and discrimination, among other things- are ignored. The April CSO figures report show that ‘non-Irish nationals’ comprise 18.1% of all persons on the Live Register and 14.3% of all persons in the labour force. If Peter Sutherland’s ‘commonality of Irish interest’ is to be deplored on account of conflating ‘special interests with general interests and universal values’, then the same must also be said the opposing figure of the ‘ordinary citizen’, since this does the same thing. The logical outworking of a political opposition between the ‘global high-flyer’ and the ‘ordinary citizen’ is a category of super-exploited worker who has to bear the brunt of the ‘ordinary citizen”s demands for nationality-based justice.
UPDATE: I had written this piece before I read this:
THE GOVERNMENT is removing the right to work for non-EU family members of EU citizens while they await a decision on their right to residency in Ireland.
The decision reflects concerns over rising unemployment and the Department of Justice’s ongoing campaign targeting so-called “sham marriages” between EU citizens and third country nationals.
Revolting stuff from a racist government. But Fintan O’Toole’s ‘ordinary citizen’ need not worry.