The Guardian: supporting imperial adventures overseas since.. forever.
Archive for July, 2010
Wouldn’t you think An Bord Snip Nua might have adverted to the option of snipping the income of the top 20 per cent of households, as an alternative to snipping social welfare, even if this was not strictly within the terms of reference? Might it not have suggested snipping it sufficiently to pay for the hole in the public finances and leave education, welfare the health alone?
That might put Ireland in the same rankings in the income inequality league as Luxembourg, Belgium or Holland and they are not exactly egalitarian Soviets.
The country is not broke. It is just dysfunctional. We could fix it quite easily, if only there were the political will to do that and if only there was a sufficient sense of social solidarity to permit it.
Question: Why did the Nazis come to power?
Answer: A lack of political will to ensure that the terms of the Versailles Treaty were not excessively onerous on Germany resulted in immense social upheaval in the years after the Treaty was signed. Furthermore, in allowing the Nazi party to gain a foothold in contested elections, the political establishment demonstrated a lack of political will.
Question: Why did Hitler commit suicide?
Answer: Aware that the prospects for a Nazi victory were bleak, the decision to commit suicide on the part of the Fuhrer can be ascribed to an absence of political will.
Question: Why was John Fitzgerald Kennedy assassinated?
Answer: The decision to pull out of Vietnam, which had crystallised in JFK’s mind in the months leading up to November 1963, was accompanied by a lack of political will in government. On the other hand, there was plenty of political will to ensure that the decision to pull out of Vietnam did not rest with John F. Kennedy. The rest, as they say, is history.
Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Answer: The failure to erect chicken wire on the part of the farmer charged with raising the chicken is a direct consequence of inadequate oversight mechanisms with regard to the housing and welfare of farmyard animals. The inadequacy of these oversight mechanisms can be traced directly to an absence of political will in government.
OK, I’ll stop now.
An elusive substance, this ‘political will’.
Vincent Browne is certainly not the only one to refer to it as a silver bullet explanation as to why things don’t turn out the way they oughta. But what is it?
It strikes me as one of these things, like one’s mojo, which are mostly present by their absence.
It seems fair enough to say that there is such a thing as will. I may get out of bed in the morning to go to work on account of the fact that if I don’t I will be evicted and starve, but it is not solely on account of that fact. Some degree of will is necessary, because I am a conscious being, capable of making decisions and with sufficient power to act on those decisions. I can always just stay in bed and eventually get evicted and starve. This is not at all to say I go to work purely on account of free will, as Bill Cullen might. But will counts for something.
There’s a difference, though, between the will of one person acting in a particular situation, like me bothering to write these gilded lines, and the sort of political will in aggregate to which Vincent Browne is referring, which seems to involve loads of politicians and civil servants getting their shit together and doing lots of cool stuff for the good of the country.
So, ever the intrepid pursuer of truth, I went out onto the internet and searched for political will. And there are people out there who, perhaps egged on by the angels of their better nature, have attempted to define political will. Like this chap:
Noting at the outset that many people other than me seem to think that political will is just something whose absence is lamented, rather than an object of any great usefulness -a ‘lazy substitute for more sophisticated analysis’-, the writer of this paper attempts, undeterred, to define political will ‘in relation to a requirement to fulfil the international responsibility to protect’:
achieving a balance between incentives and disincentives among potential interveners with the necessary resources, including offsetting their values – such as an ideological commitment to R2P – and their interests. This balance must be sufficient to persuade a critical number of them to formulate and coordinate an appropriate policy, and to create and sustain a coalition strong enough to implement that policy effectively over the time required, given the nature and severity of the operational challenge.
This isn’t defining political will in the abstract, though, but rather taking a commonplace use of the term ‘political will’ in a particular context (international institutions and the responsibility to protect) and seeking to turn the term into a useful instrument for achieving a particular end (implementing policy). This definition has an explicitly subjective, normative basis. That is, the presence of political will in these terms depends on someone achieving a required balance for a certain end, and that end is desirable.
The problem I see, at least for making one’s way from here to an abstract definition of political will, is that any given balance between incentives and disincentives among potential interveners etc. could, depending on where you’re standing, be defined as political will. So one might have as one’s end the violent destruction of the international order and bellum omnium contra omnes, and could then say, well, we need to achieve the right balance for that purpose, and we shall call this balance ‘political will’. And now we shall let loose the dogs of war, and have a gin and tonic.
Well, anyway. It strikes me there isn’t much of a difference between this geezer’s conception of political will, as in the stuff I want there to be in order for a load of stuff I want to happen, and ViBro’s own conception.
So I started looking a bit further afield, or at least a bit further down the Google search results. And I came across this.
For a Neo-Communist Manifesto it is absolutely important to offer the public its theoretical principles for consideration. Furthermore, the theoretical foundations of the latest development of the principles of humanism deserve to be profoundly presented.
Willing to define the volitions of the absolutely actual universal Political Will, which self-determines its complete theoretical and practical reality in the world, manifests itself in it and rules it, we have to introduce the concept of Politovolia. Being the highest organisation of the Absolute Rational Will in the living process of its continuous self-development, Politovolia is a manifestation of the all-inclusive and omnipotent willing itself Political Will, which constantly carries out into practice itself in the world history and changes the ethical and civic virtues as well as the ethical values and political culture of every society in each particular epoch. It is the universal power that is in everything and there is no social human activity in which Political Will does not rule itself through itself.
Here we see the humble, quotidian ‘political will’, conceived as above of in terms of a lack of necessary stuff, transformed via the cunning of History, into the presence of all this Stuff working its way into every crevice, nook, cranny and mental process, always-already, everytime, everywhere. Good grief.
And c’mere: there’s more:
Join the school! Take part in establishing the newest political movement of the Absolute Rational Will. Fight for the unconditional right of the Philosophy of Absolute Rational Will to become a part of the culture of humanity and make Mankind more powerful through creating a society genuinely based on the supreme might of the principles of Absolute Rational Will. Go for it! The time for the Newest Development of modern practical Universal Will – the time for its Newest Revolution – has come, Ladies and Gentlemen. Join the revolutionary school of Modern Rational Voluntarism! Develop the Science of Politovolia! The Political Will of each epoch manifests itself as a distinct, comprehensive politovolical system. The task of Man is to act politically, to be a citizen, to manifest his Rational Will, to have the Political Will of his time and to carry it out into practice.
Just do it!
I take it this is some sort of wind-up. It would be a remarkable coincidence if, in the final moments in the search for political will, the bearing of the Political Will of one’s time and the purchase of a pair of trainers were set in motion by the same radical injunction.
Or maybe not. Anyway, I’m losing the will to go any further after that last bit.
Returning to planet Earth for the moment, what is there to be learned from ViBro’s accusation of a lack of political will in the particular context of Irish parliamentary democracy? Perhaps as he moseys from one politician to the next, he is struck by the fact that none of them appears to bear the mark of the beast, and that in the main they are fairly normal human beings who have the capacity to act in ways that would deliver a more egalitarian society but -GAA manager alert- don’t seem to want it enough. And, if only they wanted it enough, it would be so easy to change so many things.
This seems to me a bit like wanting more pedestrians to douse themselves in petrol and set themselves alight in bouts of devil-may-care spontaneity. Pedestrians for the most part are able-bodied people, they can get hold of some petrol pretty easily, so why won’t they immolate themselves when I expect them to do it? One short answer is that pedestrians walk the streets from A to B, they stop at traffic lights, look both ways, and pretend not to see beggars and chummy young people with clipboards, and they may well possess the capacity to reduce themselves to cinders, but, simply put, it just isn’t the sort of thing you can reasonably expect them to get up to with any degree of regularity. As a pedestrian, it is not their thing. Sadly for one who might will it otherwise, it does not amount to a lack of inflammatory will, any more than my computer’s failure to write this post for me amounts to a lack of compositionary will. Which is to say, maybe it does, but it is several country miles away from the point, which is that if the actions of pedestrians, computers or politicians do not serve your interests then it is probably because their real function is not what you suppose it to be, no matter how much you desire that it were otherwise.
I approvingly retweeted this post from the Political World blog yesterday because I thought it corrected a common misperception about who wields power in Ireland. But having read through it again, I must take issue with some of its implications.
One of the striking things about the power apparatus in Ireland is the myriad of cross-pollinating relationships within it. I don’t see “the government” as simply a selection of TDs from a parliamentary majority who form the Cabinet. These people have little or no power. If they had real power, the likes of Mary Coughlan would never become Tanaiste. They represent around 10% of the real power in Ireland. The rest is made up of the influence of the banks and insurance companies, the CIF (who own, to a large extent, FF), the upper levels of civil administration, public bodies like the HSE, Fas and the like, IBEC, PR companies/lobbying groups, the panoply of quangos and the mouthpiece for the “consensus”, RTE.
Complicit in this cosy structure and the maintaining of it in situ are the trade union movement and the media, particularly the Independent News Group. The lines between public and “private” get blurred (particularly when “private” companies exist on public monies dubiously awarded)
Cross-pollinating relationships are rife across this structure. They reinforce themselves in public bodies and quangos, in departments and private lobby companies, in our now-insolvent banks and union movement. The potential for conflicts of interest are huge but this power circle know how not to rock the boat and know that even if they do get caught out, the way to go is to simply brazen it out and further lower standards in Ireland until we arrive at where we are today, with public standards in the sewer and corruption everywhere in Irish public life.
So it doesn’t really matter who is in the Dail because these people have no real power and are there basically to serve those who exercise the other 90% of the power in the country. Those who exercise that 90% of the power would not tolerate able, talented, public-spirited people in elected office because such people are difficult to control.
In short, TDs and Senators, with a couple of exceptions, are the hired help, there to serve those who exercise 90% of the power. Which is why the quality is so low. They are happy to take the vast paychecks and unvouched expenses that comes with the office they hold. But that is the very point. They are in office but NOT in power because they don’t exercise the power.
When I mention the word nomenklatura, this is what I mean.
I don’t have much of a developed vocabulary when it comes to talking about power. I’ve read some Marxist analyses of power, some C Wright Mills, some Foucault, some Bourdieu. Power: A Radical View by Steven Lukes made an impression on me when I read it about a year ago, but the impression has faded since I haven’t picked it up since. All this reading activity has been quite casual and cursory, and I’ve never bothered to summarise it for myself. What’s more, I don’t have any books to hand at the minute to check if what I am going to say approximates sense.
When it comes to talking about power, it comes as second nature to think about it as something people or institutions have. As in the exclamation from the Snap song, or when Patti Smith says People Have The Power. And then we, or at least I, normally think about it in terms of power over, or power to. The former denotes a relationship of domination and subjugation and the latter denotes the capacity to do something. And power over necessarily includes power to: power to demand that your servant apply Brylcreem to your Pekinese, for instance.
But to the extent that I can demand that my servant tend to my dog, what does it mean to say that I have power in this sense? It may be that I have money (generally, the most important form of social power) and my servant does not. But this is only one element of what defines the relation between me and my servant. . If my servant refuses to tend to my dog, he is exercising power: the power to refuse. If he adopts a passive-aggressive attitude to my commands, and applies the Brylcreem in a throughother manner that will embarrass my peers and jeopardise my social standing, he is still exercising power: the power to resist. Now, it may be that my servant harbours no such thoughts, and considers it the highest honour that could befall him and all his dead ancestors for him to brylcreem my dog so that he can keep his family scurvy-free. In such a case, where can we locate power? Do I have this power over him in the sense of the power being somehow vested in me? I don’t think so. For him to consider it an honour to do what he does requires some sort of conscious activity on his part. Which brings me, somewhat earlier than I expected, to the idea of false consciousness.
The idea of false consciousness -which Lukes’s book re-evaluates and finds useful, if I recall correctly- often seems to be prefixed with ‘old Marxist’. Consider this slice of reactionary cliché from the Torygraph:
never dared be radical when young,” wrote Robert Frost, “for fear it
would make me conservative when old.” He was right to worry. The World
Values Survey, a study of 136,000 people in 48 countries, has found that
the old Marxist idea of false consciousness is alive and well – but
that, deliciously, it is self-professed Lefties who do not realise quite
how Right-wing they are. These middle-aged socialists may have voted
Labour, and marched for CND, but their views on redistribution show that
they are keener on keeping the wealth than sharing it.
readers, this should come as little surprise. We have long argued that
the facts of life are, as Margaret Thatcher had it, conservative. Or, as
the French politician François Guizot put it in the 19th century: “Not
to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is
proof of want of head.”
Or, consider this report from the Nixon Center:
In Mr. Trimble’s opinion, the original IRA ideology was one in which it perceived itself as the representative for the whole of the Irish nation, and the Unionists were “victims of false consciousness” who had been “deceived and manipulated” by the British.
I have no idea if Trimble’s characterisation of the original IRA ideology is accurate. What I do know is that it was a commonplace to hear people to talk about
Protestant unionists as though they were really Irish but just didn’t
know it yet, perhaps in the same way that a heterosexual man thinks he
can convert lesbians through sufficient applications of his virility. But the use of ‘false consciousness’ in this context is applied to subjects who consciously perceive themselves as British – a ‘false’ perception, in contrast to the ‘true’ consciousness: that in truth, they are Irish. Maybe the IRA themselves used this opposition between ‘true’ and ‘false’ consciousness themselves; I don’t know.
Now, if this is all that false consciousness is: a failure to apprehend a corresponding ‘true’ reality because of manipulation from some other party, then it is not very interesting, not least because it presupposes that some other party is able to divine the objective truth of that situation. And why should that be so? Would Lacan’s ‘les non-dupes errent’ not be appropriate in such circumstances? And wouldn’t this entail a fair amount of patronising: that ‘we’ are the ones with truth on our side, and ‘they’ are the ones whose hearts and minds -in the manner of an occupier- must be won? Would that not involve replacing one form of manipulation –they are being manipulated by the British state, ruling class propaganda, the Islamic theocracy, the intelligentsia- with another: we must manipulate them so that they realise the truth of our position?
But -if I recall correctly, this is Lukes’s point- an idea of false consciousness need not entail a corresponding, already existing, ‘true’ consciousness. False consciousness, if it is a useful idea, may simply be understood as a consciousness in one’s own situation that is at odds with the objective truth of one’s situation, brought about by manipulation, censorship, forced habit, disinformation and so on. So, with regard to my servant, an instance of false consciousness would be that he considers himself as freely submitting to my commands to brylcreem my dog thus keeping his family free of scurvy because it’s an honour to serve such a heroic, handsome and distinguished gentleman who has taught him everything there is to know about honour, duty and heroism.
This then raises the question of what the objective truth of my servant’s situation is. Can I, as his master, answer this question? Probably not, and I am unlikely to ask myself the question in the first place. But if I were to be asked the question, I might say: “but look at him! Can’t you see how happy he is? Would you abolish the bond between us and allow his family to starve through scurvy? What sort of heartless bastard are you?! Don’t go bothering his little head with all these childish ideas! I have long argued that
the facts of life are, as Margaret Thatcher had it, conservative! Don’t you know that men of intemperate minds cannot be free?”
Can anyone else identify what the objective truth of my servant’s situation is? I think the only thing I can conclude here is that one can easily identify certain factors -manipulation, obligation, implicit threats of starvation- which deny my servant the possibility of arriving at consciousness of the objective truth of his situation. At the same time, it is hardly controversial to suggest that allowing me to exploit him for my own frivolous ends is the sort of thing every human being would be happy to do, given a free choice.
It is more complicated than that, of course, and I seem nowhere near the point I wished to arrive at when I started out. But let me relate this idea of false consciousness to how Slim Buddha writes about power at the top. ‘Real’ power, by his/her lights, is distributed according roughly to a 90-10 split between the power of private/semi-private entities on the one hand and what passes for the legislature on the other.
What is striking is the total absence from this picture of power distribution, that is, of power as a ‘thing’ that is ‘possessed’, is power as it relates to the agency of the general population. Even within the entities named, whatever actions these entities take or do not take, there are power struggles between dominant and dominated groups. The upper tier of banks, trade unions, public bodies, even IBEC firms, must contend with resistance from within in order to act as they do, and any course of action they adopt is necessarily the outcome of power struggles. Nor do these entities always act in perfect concert, as the writer notes.
To say that the trade union movement and IBEC are two elements of the same power configuration is pushing things. True, the trade union leadership may strike deals with IBEC and the government of the day which results in copper-fastening the gross iniquities of the existing system, but ordinary trade union members may exercise some degree of control over the actions of the leadership in order to protect their wages and working conditions. This is much more than can be said of most employees in IBEC firms.
Even if we confine ourselves to the idea of power as a thing to be had, not even a dictatorship has 100% of power. There is always resistance, refusal, dissent, whether organised or diffuse, whether continuous and long-term, or discontinuous and short-term. People can struggle in all sorts of decisive ways against all the entities named above as holding 100% of the power. To imagine that the power of these entities is all-determining is to cede them more power than they already wield.
While it is important to recognise that government is not the all-powerful and domineering entity that propaganda outlets like Independent News and Media present it to be, it still needs to be borne in mind that ordinary people can wrest a far greater degree of control over the institutions of government than over, say, the decisions of the board of directors of Intel.
To accept the picture that people can’t have no agency, that all is futile, is to guarantee continued domination. And if we refuse to accept this domination as legitimate, as we ought, we are then confronted with some questions: how is our conscious activity, of how we relate to the world, the product of illegitimate power operating over us? And, if we refuse to accept that someone should have such power over us, how can we dismantle this power? I don’t know the answer to these questions in my own case, so I am hardly well placed to answer this for anyone else. But I would submit that these are questions to be asked over and over, and that useful answers only come through dialogue and collective engagement, rather than as something each person has to figure out for herself. I will confidently wager, though, that a refusal to allow ourselves to be seduced or mystified by the presence of seemingly powerful entities is the initial act of stripping them of their power.
People know the adjective ‘fat’ is a moral judgement. From the standpoint of political economy, eating all the pies is a clear act of theft.
The ‘obesity epidemic’ warned of is a disease mostly affecting the poor. It requires time, money and education, and often a mode of transport, to buy and prepare healthy food, whilst salt, sugar and fat are used as drugs to temporarily alleviate boredom, anxiety and despair.
Organisations that claim to represent working-class constituencies are not averse to using ‘fat’ as a moral judgment.
Because capitalists have enjoyed luxury and leisure on account of the exertions of the frequently malnourished proletariat (the introduction of rationing in the UK during World War II raised nutrition levels among the general population), ‘fat’ was a vivid illustration of how the capitalist exploited the proletarian. As in fat cats, etc: witness the ICTU campaign last year with the images of real fat cats.
Or, as in the most recent edition of the Union Post:
Many of these senior executives are still at the helm of our industry, with egos still inflated and demanding salaries and perks to prove it. They are the fattest of fat cats, licking the cream while ordinary working people who had no role in creating this crisis are facing the dole or cuts in their terms and conditions of employment.
It’s well known that fat is a feminist issue, with women subjected to intense demands and surveillance so that they comply with ideal body types. But it’s also a class issue.
The link between poverty and obesity may be counterintuitive, but it is well documented. Hunger and obesity are not at opposite ends of the continuum from poverty to wealth; rather, they are opposite sides of the same coin of malnutrition. As food prices continue to inflate, so will waistlines. And increasing rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and a host of other chronic disease will likely follow.
..the cost per calorie of healthier food is higher because of the economics of industrialized food production and distribution. As food prices climb, people with lower incomes will be pressured to choose cheaper, processed, calorie-dense foods — increasing the likelihood of obesity.
A part of the food price crisis is being driven by the diversion of worldwide corn and sugar crops to biofuels. In the past, the relative low cost of these mass-produced commodities was considered a factor in the obesity epidemic. Now, the amount of these crops available for food has gone down and the prices have risen proportionately faster. Nonetheless, calorie-dense foods, including those made with corn syrup sweeteners, will still be cheaper on a per-calorie basis.
The fact of being fat is frequently cast in terms of simple consumer choice, as though at any given moment all had equal opportunity, education and amenities in order to access healthy food, and as though habit were a mere consequence of choice. If someone is fat, that is their choice.
This judgment of fat people sits quite snugly with a vision of a society in which those with the greatest portion of social power are those who have made the canniest choices in the marketplace, and not those who have been sustained by familial affluence and educational institutions that serve the interests of their class. No surprise, then, that current prime minister of the UK David Cameron was quoted by the BBC as saying last year that:
politicians should not be afraid to spell out right from wrong. Failing to do so meant “a denial of personal responsibility and the concept of a moral choice“.
“We talk about people being at risk of obesity instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise,” Mr Cameron said.
Fatness inhibits the vigour of the nation. Fat people must avoid becoming a burden on the state in terms of medical treatment on account of their insatiable appetites.
But the state itself must be rid of its fat. Government departments are ‘bloated’, and commentators like Eoghan Harris -though Harris’s obsession with fat cats is second to none- say that:
Meanwhile, the chief economist with Davy Stockbrokers says that
While Ronnie O’Toole from National Irish Bank says ‘
A lot of fat will be cut out of the public service with An Bord Snip Nua, and that will be good.’
More recently, at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Jim Power of Friends First said of the boom:
Policy makers, and indeed the rest of us, became totally caught up in the booming economy and “Ireland became fat and arrogant“
Cast in this light, public sector cutbacks are necessary for moral redemption and physical rejuvenation. The solution, in the words of Eoin O’Leary, writing for the Irish Times, is
To those who say that cuts hit the poor hardest. If the result of cutting the fat from government means that the poor are hit hardest, this is no bad thing, because the poor are also the fattest, and therefore the most slothful and morally suspect members of the body politic.
Perhaps one day the body politic itself will be subjected to liposuction.
Not a great deal of time to be posting stuff at the minute, to my regret if not to yours. Here’s a rough translation of an editorial from the July edition of the CNT newspaper which I thought relevant.
To the virtual barricades
The web is bubbling with activity. There are platforms, social networks of support, solidarity, outrage, commitment. We believe we can sift through the avalanche of information about everything that is going on in the world, but the reality is that we are and we repeat what the Opinion Makers tell us time and again.
Virtual life is expanding way beyond our computer screens, and it becomes ever more solid to the point of vampirising our activities in the real world, our practical relations in the physical sphere. If 44,000 people who declared themselves ‘against Esperanza Aguirre’ had been staging sit-ins every week outside the lair where she draws up her criminal regional policies, the sovereign of Madrid would be singing a different tune.
Anyone with the slightest amount of anarchy in her veins should live in perpetual shock/disgust (each according to her taste) at the hypocritical conformity that surrounds us. Our neighbours are delighted to live in this democracy -although the welfare state is being forcibly dismantled-, they are convinced they have freedom of expression -despite the fact their mass media belongs to three or at best four commercial holdings-, and satisfied by the material conveniences they enjoy -even if this enjoyment ends up selling our soul to a bank for the rest of our lives.
The Web of webs, which aspires to be the instrument that helps us all to be all-knowing and illustrious, a multimedia object and collective depository of knowledge, the rouser of wills, is, for the majority of our neighbours, let’s not kid ourselves, an extension of their daily vices and materialisms: shopping, gossip on social platforms, announcements by official corporate spokespeople. But what is worrying, what is truly frightening, is the rise of virtual opposition. Pages and pages of fiery protests, Powerpoint presentations passed along with the disgraceful salaries of politicians or with the just demands of civil servants, firefighters, waste collectors, platforms against the bloodsucking political elite…what repercussion do these messages have on our lives? Do we use the medium, or are we its slaves?
Faced with the avalanche of alternative news, we run the risk that what should be a means, a provocation, turns into an end in itself: a protest that begins and ends on the virtual pages of our computer, a multitudinous group of virtual protesters who exercise their right clicking furiously in front of our screens, whilst in the street, robbed of our presence, the junk food dispensers, advertising hoarding and the queues out the front of the job centre grow and dominate.
No virtual action, however virulent, can be a substitute for direct action, our physical and disrupting presence in demonstrations, concentrations, and in pickets. Communications media wants to rob us of the little that is left to us: the street, the air whether clean or contaminated, the right to shout them in the face.
Let no-one be fooled: the virtual shouts, however big the letters and however bold their font, don’t inconvenience or embarrass anyone. It is at the workplace, in the street that is ours, where we have to have to shout at them all our fury. So that they can’t forget by simply pulling out the plug.
And yes, I am aware of the irony inherent in posting this.
They have planned and established an education system which more wickedly does violence to the elemental human rights of Irish children than would an edict for the general castration of Irish males. The system has aimed at the substitution for men and women of mere Things. It has not been an entire success. There are still a great many thousand men and women in Ireland. But a great many thousand of what, by way of courtesy, we call men and women, are simply Things. Men and women, however depraved, have kindly human allegiances. But these Things have no allegiance. Like other Things, they are For sale.
-Pearse, The Murder Machine
It will be soon be time, indeed the time has probably already passed, for us to start looking for a primary school. I am about as enthusiastic about this as I would be about a visit from the bailiffs. To tell the truth, I have been putting it off for some time, in the wild hope that the education system would simply dissolve before the moment arrived. My thoughts about my son going to primary school remind me about what I thought about primary school before I myself started. Some decades later, I am quite sure that my four year old self was mostly right on this.
What do people have to go to school for, anyway?
One can roll out liberal, conservative and progressive arguments about the emancipatory power of education, and how education is needed for a person to become a fully-fledged human being. So far, I agree.
What I do not, can not agree with, is the idea that these necessities can only be addressed by a system of schools in the form that we know them. And I deeply resent the fact that I will be compelled to send my child to one of these institutions which, as far as I can see, are primarily geared to instilling discipline and obedience, and, secondarily, to instruct in the development and certification of a range of skills that will make his labour power attractive to a prospective owner of capital. Education, in terms of priorities, scarcely comes into it.
My resentment is further deepened by the grip of the Catholic Church on the range of available institutions from which we are forced to choose, and the possibility that we might have to end up sending him to one of their schools in the absence of an available alternative. The fact that an Educate Together school may present a secular alternative does not cancel out the fact that these too are part of the existing education system.
It is further deepened by the fact that we will have to pay for his school books: a barbaric practice. Also by the knowledge that I may find myself, at some point, in loco praceptoris, hypocritically biting my lip and offering inducements to do homework, issuing reprimands for failing to be dutiful in class, and all that stuff.
As I write this, I can hear fragments of arguments against this in my mind, and they all sound to me like arguments from authority. Not in the sense of repeating the conclusions of some expert who happens to conclude that the current education system approximates the best possible of worlds, but rather, in the sense that this is the way things are, and that it is better to accept it and get on with it rather than making the situation to so much questioning complaint. These arguments are arguments from authority in the sense that they derive from brute authority, springing forth from a habit of obedience instilled and developed, to a large extent, in school.
Let me get back to somewhere approaching the point. While I do not see Catholic Church control of schools as favourable, I do not see the mere transfer of this control to the State as necessarily favourable either, mainly for reasons I put forward in the post about the tiny and vocal minorities: there is no reason, in the present, why a weakening of Church influence would lead to the instrumental purpose of schools being altered one iota. What is more, given the current balance of class forces, the likely outcome is an even greater subordination of schools to the demands of the owners of capital.
There is no public discussion on what schools are for. It is mostly taken for granted that they exist to serve capital. When the matter of schools is raised in broadcast and print media, it is always in terms of whether or not they are turning out properly equipped units of production. A lot of the time this is disguised in disingenuous concern for giving children the right skills to meet the demands of the 21st century global marketplace. The bullshit of the corporate world suffuses all conversation about what children should be learning: problem-solving, innovation, communications, team work, creativity, critical thinking. These are precisely the sort of glittering generalities that flash up in the brochures of any corporate asset stripper worth its salt. But anyone reading the brochure of an asset stripper knows very well that in so far as there is any truth to this bullshit, it is on account of how well these attributes serve the needs of capital. Not so when it comes to people thinking about education.
Consider chickens. There is a lot more public thought given to the best way to raise chickens than there is given to the best way to educate children. Many people will fret over the conditions of battery hens, and will opt for free range or organic chicken, out of concern for the chicken whose flesh they will eventually devour. There is, of course, nothing wrong with worrying about chickens. But whilst people are at least aware of differing methods for raising chickens and of potential negative effects of particular approaches, not least on the chicken, I have never come across a discussion about education that was not in terms of turning out children as optimally equipped production units or as maturing investment portfolios. No doubt this is in large measure an effect of the existing education system, where discipline and instruction are paramount, and as a result this form of ‘education’ is seen as an element of some natural order.
Well, it isn’t. The problem, though, is that however revolting the existing system might be, it is better than what is being proposed by the likes of Jim O’Hara, general manager of Intel Ireland and vice-president, Technology Manufacturing Group, Intel Corporation, and board member of Enterprise Ireland, who had a revolting article published by the Irish Times last week.
Before looking at the article, consider the growing influence of Intel and other multinationals, in terms of interventions in what passes for public debate. The extent of their influence on government policy is immense, but not particularly transparent. Explanations as to why multinational firms chose Ireland as a base tend to cite factors such as a young, English-speaking workforce and low corporation tax.
What is less cited, but an important factor nonetheless, is the degree of power enjoyed by large multinationals over the state apparatus, by comparison with larger jurisdictions with broader economic bases in which there are a broader range of powerful constitutencies that the government must deal with. In this jurisdiction, given the relative size of firms like Intel to the rest of the economy, when its bosses say ‘jump’ the government has already provided it with a range of options to choose from in terms of altitude preferences.
Consider, for instance, the ‘major overhaul’ of the intellectual property regime to be conducted by the government, reported here.
The members of the intellectual property IP Implementation Group are: Dr Jim Mountjoy [Chairman], Founder of Euristix/Board Member, Science Foundation Ireland, IBEC Damien Callaghan, Member of Innovation Taskforce, Investment Director, Intel Capital John Scanlan, Director, Technology Transfer Office, NUI Maynooth Richard Stokes, CEO, Invent (Technology Transfer Office, DCU) Brendan Cremen, Director, Technology Transfer Office, UCC Professor Terry Smith, Vice-President for Research, NUI Galway Dr Jeanne Bolger, Vice-President Scientific Licensing/Alliance Manager, Jansen Barry Kennedy, Research Program Manager, Intel Dr Daniel O’Mahony, Partner, Kernel Capital Partners and Partner, Seroba Kernel Life Sciences Dr Ena Prosser, Partner, Fountain Healthcare Partners Paul Kavanagh, Director, Kinometrics Tara MacMahon, Intellectual Property lawyer, Member of Innovation Taskforce
Or consider the responsiveness of Batt O’Keefe to concerns expressed about ‘grade inflation‘, and the people he had been talking to about it:
Asked if concerns had been expressed by employers about particular institutions, Mr O’Keeffe acknowledged several industry people were of the view that there was a disparity in standards between some establishments.
“In order to get consistency across the board, we need to have an outside, overseeing quality assurance body, to ensure that all qualifications across our education sector are on par.”
Mr O’Keeffe said he wanted to achieve “an equilibrium” of standards across the various educational institutions.
Mr O’Keeffe insisted the investigations into exam results did not represent a “witch hunt” but a challenge to all institutions to meet the quality standards.
Internet giant Google Ireland, one of largest private sector employers in the State, today welcomed Mr O’Keeffe’s decision. The company, which employs 1,500 people at its European headquarters in Dublin, said Ireland’s education system has been a critical attraction for US investment in Ireland and the key to delivering the smart economy.
“We believe it is imperative that the integrity of our third level education system is maintained and we are pleased that the Minister is looking into this,” said Google Ireland chief executive John Herlihy.
The investigations follow high-profile criticism of the Irish education system by former Intel chief executive Dr Craig Barrett at the Farmleigh economic summit in June and again in Dublin last month.
And consider the Irish Times’s approval of O’Keefe’s solicitous response:
There is much to be done to reverse the decline in academic standards. But Mr O’Keeffe has acknowledged the scale of the problem, albeit belatedly, and is breaking with the tradition where the Minister sees himself as no more than a cheerleader for the education sector. It is also appropriate that a minister should respond to concerns raised by major employers such as Intel and Google. As he said yesterday, we can no longer afford to ignore the views of these and other US multinationals which provide jobs for more than 200,000 people.
What Intel and Google and say goes. It is in this light that O’Hara’s article from last week ought to be read. Most multinational firms have media strategies, and as part of this they seek to reach a certain degree of media coverage. It seems likely that O’Hara’s intervention here is part of this, rather than the fruit of a patriotic impulse. Whether what is being proposed represents a real priority for Intel scarcely matters: what matters is that it will be acted upon.
In a turgid piece replete with the usual corporate excremental sausage, he writes, outlining Intel’s ‘vision for excellence in education and a path to competitiveness in the 21st century’, that
The curriculum should be structured in such a way that it reflects the needs of modern society
i.e. the curriculum should be structured in such a way that it reflects the needs of Intel.
Curriculum improvement goes hand in hand with teacher development….If we are to drive excellence among the teaching profession we should look at compensating teachers based on performance
i.e. teachers should be subjected to intensive metriculated assessment, based on how they meet the goals set for them by Intel.
Meritocracy makes great sense in business and there is no reason why it should not work in education.
i.e. people like me, at the pinnacle of the business world are here on merit. This is why they rule, and this is why I and people like me can impose our vision on the education system (Let’s forget about the fact that over the past few decades, in the country where the meritocracy of my corporation originates, pay for those at the top have grown to obscene levels while wages for most of the population have stagnated). Just as we have arrived at the top of a corporate tyranny where everything is subordinate to the creation of profits for shareholders, we expect the education system to operate as a tyranny, with each teacher in charge of his or her own ‘career’ development, having internalised the values of the corporate system, and we expect teachers to impart these values to the children they have been assigned to instruct.
Students must have access to the best learning environment and infrastructure, including always-on broadband in the classroom and beyond so that learning can continue after school.
Today, learning does not continue at school. Children should work longer hours to meet Intel’s needs.
New approaches to teaching and learning require new approaches to evaluation. In business, when it comes to performance, you get what you measure.
In business, when it comes to raising the rate of exploitation of workers, you get what you measure. It allows bosses to exercise greater control and surveillance over workers, and will work for teachers and children too.
It is important that we do not just change certain aspects of education, but create a culture that embraces innovation, regular evaluation and continuous improvement.
We must create a system of surveillance that renders children subordinate to the values of corporate capitalism from an early age and continuously seeks to build on their ignorance, obedience and subordination, erasing any capacity for critical thinking.
Industry can make a contribution to shaping the subject and career selection of students to ensure that the best and brightest come through the system and serve the knowledge areas that reflect the needs of the nation.
Any child that does not obey is surplus to Intel’s requirements.
There’s your knowledge economy right there: slavery, ignorance and a particularly psychotic strain of neo-liberal ideology. If people are even in the slightest bit serious about avoiding a repetition of the abuses of the past, never mind developing decent forms of education, these bastards must be resisted at all costs.