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.