Natural Inclinations

Two considerations afflict how often I post: time and inclination, and the two seldom coincide. So I leave you with the makings of a post I began the other day, but abandoned.

Our muted, conformist nation fears change – The Irish Times – Tue, May 25, 2010

Two years after the economic crisis began, President Mary McAleese belatedly tries to sum up the public mood. She is right when she says that “people are mad as hell” but it does not actually mean that anybody is going to do anything about it.

An intellectual consensus has resigned itself to pessimism and disengaged from caring anymore. A generation of indignant Bayern Munichs is content to watch decision-makers prevaricate on their political and economic futures.

The character of Brian Cowen’s reshuffle in March was personified by the same colour of caution that has stopped him from calling the three byelections.

Gordon Brown’s campaign in the recent British elections was characterised by a fear of change.

The Labour Party’s call for a new constitution, to be written substantially by the people and ratified on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, has not excited the public imagination. Neither has Fine Gael’s “New Politics” policy which seeks to, among other things, create a citizens’ assembly to drive political reform.

It is curious then that, while politicians of various hues advocate big-bang-style reforms, many academics in the fields of politics and law have poured cold water over the very concept of a second republic. Debate on the Fine Gael and Labour proposals – on politicalreform.ie and humanrights.ie – is at times engaged in the scholarly straw-man fallacy.

Are academics as intellectually conservative as their students?

The Irish solution to an Irish problem is to vote No when we don’t know. This essentially translates as a phobia of any contemplation of actual change. The appetite for radical institutional reform is subdued by the natural inclination towards preserving the existing order. Would Barack Obama or Nick Clegg have ever been elected to political office if they stood in Ireland?

I think the answer to that last question is ‘What’re you, nuts? Of course they would’.

The main feature of both individuals is how their candidacy was ceaselessly represented as some tidal moment of change when, in the end, they were products of the existing order’s natural inclination towards preserving the existing order.

This is so forehead-slappingly obvious that it would take the combined absence of a forehead and a hand not to notice.

The natural inclination was demonstrated, in Obama’s case, with the appointments of Wall Street cronies like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, with the continued bombing of Afghan and Pakistani civilians (and his joking about the use of predator drones), support for the laundered coup in Honduras, continued military and diplomatic support for murderous lunatic client states such as Colombia and Israel, and so on.

Somewhat less spectacularly, in the case of Nick Clegg, the ‘I agree with Nick’ phenomenon. There have been few spectacles so farcical in the history of the modern ‘democratic’ state than the proliferation of ‘I agree with Nick’ t-shirts, as though the fact of the leaders of two establisment parties being compelled to agree with the leader of a third party validated the idea that the third party stood for a radical political re-alignment. How does ‘Two Complete Twats Agree With Nick’ sound?

In so far as such a figure has not appeared yet in Ireland, I counsel: all in good time. There are ample resources for the existing order to cobble together a candidate for ‘change’ whenever the demand truly arises. I suggest that at present, it is merely finding its feet in this regard. Consider, for instance, the revelation, via Tuppenceworth.ie that the ‘Your Country, Your Call’ initiative, which, via a vast media campaign, claimed that it would ‘transform our economy – or significant elements of it – by creating jobs and opportunity’, garnered the support from the following institutions:

Accenture, AIB, Alchemy Event Management Ltd., An Focal, Bank of Ireland, Bord Gáis, Business & Finance,Business Plus, Cawley Nea/ TBWA, Cisco, Clear Channel, College View DCU,Computers in Business, Computer Scope, Cork IT, CRH, Thomas Crosbie Holdings, Communicorp, Corporate PR Photography, Arthur Cox & Co, DCC, J C Decaux, Diageo Ireland, Digital Ireland, Digital Times, Drury, Dublin City University, Ernst & Young, ESB,Explicit Cork IT, Facebook, Glen Dimplex, , Google, Hotpress, HP, Independent Newspapers, Irish Computer,Irish Daily Mail, Irish Daily Star,Irish Examiner, Irish Mail on Sunday, Irish Mirror, Irish Sun, Irish Times Newspapers, Irish Voice, Kerry Group, Kinetic, Knowledge Ireland, KPMG, Loosehorse,Marketing Age, Mutiny, JP McManus, Ray Mac Mánais, National Gallery of Ireland, Neworld Associates, News of the World,Newstalk, Omnicom Media Group, Owner Manager, PC Live,Print and Display, PwC, Regional Newspapers of Ireland, RTÉTelevision, RTÉ Radio, Screen Scene, Silicon Republic, Sky Television, Smart Company, Smurfit Kappa, Sunday Business Post, Sunday Independent, Sunday Mirror, Sunday Times, Sunday Tribune, The Ireland Funds, Times Online, Today FM, Trinity News, TV3, John Walsh Tunes, University Observer, Wall Street Journal Online, Windmill Lane.

Let us allow the mind to wander in the direction of what manner of economic transformation might be wrought that would command the support of the biggest indigenous and multinational firms in Ireland, the near entirety of state-owned and private print and broadcast media organisations, as well as prominent consulting, PR and corporate law firms. The expropriation of the expropriators? A radical redistribution of income and wealth? Shorter working hours to enable the proliferation of new forms of democratic participation?

The point is not that Your Country, Your Call is some rough beast about to dish out hammer blows in the interests of preserving the existing order; merely that it puts the preferences of the existing order on display: corporate nationalist platitudes charged with a dose of ‘yes we can’-style sentimentalty.

In so far as neither Obama nor Clegg -both centre-right figures- has any analogue in the Republic of Ireland at present, this is because the political power of the centre-right is spread across two basically indistinguishable but competing political parties.

This figure will only appear when either one -or both- of these parties collapses in the event of continued economic disintegration, and some new formation dominated by the centre-right thrusts forth, bidden in no small part by many of the institutions listed above. The civil war baggage of the past will be shucked off, and ‘a new politics’ will come to the fore. One Ireland: that sort of thing.

As for the thrust of the article- that what exists is a conformist generation. Perhaps this is true, but it’s not a ‘natural inclination’ but a habit instilled by family, school, workplace and media. Nor is it a question of aversion to ‘change’ per se. On the contrary: those twenty- and thirty-somethings in work are conditioned to adapt to ‘actual change’ all the time, by working longer hours, taking pay cuts, doing whatever the boss says -or else.

I will have more to say on this, when I get the time.

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5 Responses to “Natural Inclinations”


  1. 1 Tomboktu June 1, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    I don’t know why it would need the collapse of either or both of FF or FG before an Irish Clegg or Obama will emerge. Dick Spring emerged as a “leader for change” without the collapse of either of these entities. I would read the reason for the lack of Kenny being such a “leader” as having nothing to do with a lack of substance, but a massive lack of style and panache. Gilmore,I would think, has been trying to capitalise on that (and, I suspect, is trying to be careful to ration his public appearances so as not to bust his cover).

    A further question I think might be worth chewing on is why we rely so much on the cult of the leader and less on the content of the manifesto. I haven’t mulled that one in any great depth, but I suspect it is a complicated mixture of factors, such as
    – that it being easier to “communicate” with a person than to communicate a complex economic plan or legislative programme (even if the first of these is a facade of communication);
    – that the media prefers the personality focus (for each of the debates in the UK or USA elections, how many equivalent prime-time slots were devoted to experts explaining and examining the contents of the manifestos?); and
    – that many of us don’t want to invest the time it needs to understand the complexity of the choices on policy.

    (Imagine if elections had to be run using the equivalent of rules proposed for tobacco sales: no branding, just the packet with the cigarettes in them. I suppose the electoral equivalent would be some kind of policy referendum.)

    And a difficulty for parties of the Left (across a broadt interpretation of that term), is that trying to promote an agenda of a range of policy focused changes doesn’t work — or at least easily — in a space where the personality is what counts.

    • 2 LeftAtTheCross June 2, 2010 at 4:52 pm

      “A further question I think might be worth chewing on is why we rely so much on the cult of the leader and less on the content of the manifesto.”

      I’d imagine that’s a question that’s been the subject of many a PhD thesis, from psychology to political science.

      The question is whether the Left should play the game or not? Humans are social animals, I expect we exhibit very predictable herd behaviour in how we as a society react to the visual and other stimulus that’s broadcast at us during election campaigns. (Note that I’m basing that opinion on nothing more than a lifelong interest in natural history documentaries on TV).

      I suspect that the rules of the game will need to be altered if there’s to be any chance of the Left making serious inroads into the mass psyche. Such as prohibiting election posters which are deemed to be personality-ist, and as you mention requiring posters to carry policy statements.

      Perhaps the Left could agree amongst themselves to lead the way in this regard at the next election. But I suspect they won’t give up the chance of gaining any advantage they can by using the well tried methods of the mainstream parties. Why should they after all?

  2. 3 Hugh Green June 3, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Tomboktu, regarding why the figure of the leader is acquiring greater importance in political campaigning, as well as the points you mention, I think it has to do with the influence of business administration culture at all levels of politics. So when Michael Noonan was contesting the election as FG leader, he talked about how he wanted to be a CEO for the Irish government. Whether he really believed it or it was just bollocks cooked up by PR people, it was designed to appeal to people who are conditioned whether by training or by media or their working lives or both to see politics as just one more form of business admin. Hence the popularity of the idea that Michael O’Leary should be Taoiseach, that you should get people like Peter Sutherland in to sort the place out, and so on. A hierarchical corporate culture tends to celebrate individual virtues of leadership, insight, tough decision-making and so on. And that culture is then amplified and celebrated in media, in the likes of The Apprentice, in Business supplements, and so on. Mainly to legitimate paying the top bosses fat salaries.

    LATC,

    I was struck by this recent piece on the US by Chris Hedges with regard to the point you are making. I think it applies quite nicely to Ireland too.

    Unions, organizations formerly steeped in the doctrine of class warfare and filled with those who sought broad social and political rights for the working class, have been transformed into domesticated partners of the capitalist class. They have been reduced to simple bartering tools. The social demands of unions early in the 20th century that gave the working class weekends off, the right to strike, the eight-hour day and Social Security have been abandoned. Universities, especially in political science and economics departments, parrot the discredited ideology of unregulated capitalism and have no new ideas. Artistic expression, along with most religious worship, is largely self-absorbed narcissism. The Democratic Party and the press have become corporate servants. The loss of radicals within the labor movement, the Democratic Party, the arts, the church and the universities has obliterated one of the most important counterweights to the corporate state. And the purging of those radicals has left us unable to make sense of what is happening to us.

    And then:

    The liberal class prefers comfort to confrontation. It will not challenge the decaying structures of the corporate state. It is intolerant within its ranks of those who do. It clings pathetically to the carcass of the Obama presidency. It has been exposed as a dead force in American politics. We must find our way back to the old radicals, to the discredited Marxists, socialists and anarchists, including Dwight Macdonald and Dorothy Day. Language is our first step toward salvation. We cannot fight what we cannot describe.

    The point being that as long as you have a political discourse framed by corporate-neutral language about ‘unity’, ‘change’ and so on, it will continue to operate within the confines of what appears possible under neo-liberalism.

    • 4 LeftAtTheCross June 3, 2010 at 5:01 pm

      “Language is our first step toward salvation. We cannot fight what we cannot describe.”

      Absolutely, to use that horrible phrase from the corporate culture you describe so accurately in reply to Tomboktu.

      It really is 1984 isn’t it.

      The problem is, when language fails as a tool, as for a child, then frustration and anger find other physical outlets. I don’t think we’re quite at that point yet in society though, thankfully.

  3. 5 Pat Donnelly June 6, 2010 at 2:11 am

    McAleese had her chance: she could have referred the NAMA Bill to the Supreme Court.

    Not interested!


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