Archive for November, 2010

Reverse Robin Hoods


Margaret Thatcher, former UK PM.

How Did We Get Here?

Britain and Ireland are very different countries, not least because the former occupied all or part of the latter for centuries. But one thing the London and Dublin governments share is a neo-liberal ideology learnt at the feet of Margaret Thatcher. One of the features of that ideology is a commitment to low taxes and low government spending. In reality, this is a policy which is designed to benefit capital at the expense of labour. Both Irish and British government policy is ‘reverse Robin Hood’ – take from the poor to give to the rich.

put me in mind of this:

law abiding citizen turned into a savage,
Got to feed the children, got to feed the habit
Fell into a rabbit hole, chasing that rabbit
Now I’m in Wonderland feeling like the Son of Sam
I’m at your west coast branch, gun in hand


You know i heard they hood robbin’, your money or your life and there ain’t no stoppin’

Moment of Clarity

This is a comment I left on an article in the Clare People.

First, well done to Sister Joan Lee for telling it like it is. Second, brickbats for the journalist who wrote the report, but in fairness he takes a more reasonable stance in the comments.

Andrew places the adjective “racist” used by Sister Joan Lee (a great rock ‘n’ roll name, but that’s beside the point) in quotation marks, but describes the protest itself as peaceful without any quotation marks. Well, you can’t have a peaceful racist protest. Or maybe you can. Imagine: “The Ku Klux Klan today held a peaceful protest outside a school full of black children”. Is that peaceful? Answers on a postcard.

Third, this is regrettably the sort of competition for resources that ruling class interest seeks to encourage. Maybe the facilities in the school are not adequate for the children who go there. But is that the fault of the children? Why should where the child was born have anything to do with their right to an education? All children have a right to an education. What the law says about their status has nothing to do with it. If they go to school there, that’s where they’re from. The idea that people are illegal is a product of a state that robs people of a livelihood so that they can pay untold billions to banks. This idea gets exploited by people who won’t stand up to the state or the people that control it in search of a decent livelihood for all, but who turn -out of fear, perhaps- to the weakest and most vulnerable members of society instead. “Don’t go after me – go after *them*”. These people should be shunned, and explained the error of their ways.

Quack Quack Oops

Public servants face pay and job cuts as the IMF moves in – National News, Frontpage –


“We get called in because the patient is sick,” she continued.

“We have some medicine, which is the liquidity and the funds that we can provide, but we also have to suggest some other measures that may sometimes be difficult for countries to implement.”

Weisbrot and Montecino:

Although Ireland had positive growth for the first half of 2010, the IMF projects negative 0.3 percent growth for the year. For 2011, the IMF projects growth of 2.3 percent, but this is difficult to believe given the massive fiscal consolidation taking place. It is worth noting that when Ireland began its budget cuts at the end of 2008, the IMF projected 1 percent growth for 2009; the actual result was negative 10 percent.

I had a little discussion earlier about the use of anatomical and biological metaphors and analogies being applied to economic policy measures and their effect on populations. Of course, we should not accept such rhetorical tricks as in any way valid. But if they were valid, and if the IMF were a doctor, it would look something like this:

Or perhaps like this:

Or maybe this:

More later.

The Little State That Could

Before I forget, I was reminded last night about how, when it came to talking about the magnitude of the bank bailout, the public was regaled with a list of fun alternatives, like three kebabs from Abrakebabra every day for 6,000 years. Like here.

Well to hell with that. I was thinking about the joke Ha-Joon Chang makes in the Irish Times about how economists, in trying to address the problem of how to open a tin, assume that there’s a tin opener. We see a similar sort of thinking here.

The alternative allocations of resources floated assume the existence of an agency, namely the state, that might opt to allocate these resources in such a manner. That is, the state might bail out banks, but, under conditions not so radically different, it might also conceivably repair twice over the damage done to Haiti. Yet the possibility of the Irish state repairing the damage done to Haiti is more or less the same as the possibility of the cow jumping over the moon.

Do we not glimpse behind this sort of operation a fantasy of control over the institutions of state – that they are in fact primed to do our bidding, but a quixotic band of political ne’er-do-wells has its hands on the levers?

Whenever I turn on the TV, or radio, or look at a Twitter feed, there is this overwhelming sense that we are where we are purely on account of a series of catastrophic policy decisions. And there is no denying that there have been catastrophic decisions made.

But by confining our ideas about what is going on merely to the area of a range of potential decisions taken by government officials supplemented by the recommendations of assorted experts, are we not unconsciously engaging in a profound declaration that ‘we are where we are’?

If the state exists as it does, it is on account of relations of power. Seems to me that unless we have the means of expressing how the latter operate, and we can articulate how victories can be won in these terms, the consoling fantasies of the little state that could will see us sinking further into the shit.

Is Enough is Enough Enough?

A quick review of Fintan O’Toole’s new book, Enough is Enough, which I finished the other night. I was disappointed to find no mention of Chumbawamba.

It shouldn’t be too controversial to observe that among left-leaning shapers of public opinion in Ireland, O’Toole is the liveliest, most committed, and most piercing. But the competition is not stiff.

The country is fucked, locked into a death spiral arising from crippling debt, mass unemployment and deep inequality. The people who got the country into this mess, O’Toole concludes quite reasonably, are not the ones who are going to turn things around. To emerge from the catastrophe, O’Toole advocates the construction of a new republic. But this is not one of those Irish Times/PD ‘Rebuilding The Republic’ wheezes: O’Toole’s starting point is that there has never been a republic.

Fair enough. As he rightly notes, there is no mention of the word ‘republic’ in the constitution. And the way the place has been run since the Brits left, with the established Church forcing itself into every nook and cranny of how people live their lives -at school, in the hospital, in the bedroom- has been more in keeping with the hierarchical authoritarianism of counter-Enlightenment figures like Joseph de Maistre than with the radical egalitarianism of, say, Tom Paine or even Wolfe Tone.

Clearly the sort of republicanism espoused by Fianna Fáil will not do. Not least because they’re the ones most responsible for the catastrophe.

Brian Cowen’s address to the Wolfe Tone commemoration gives a flavour of the more refined outworkings of Fianna Fáil republicanism: ‘Tone was a visionary and the first to espouse a new politics that cherished all sections and interests of our people irrespective of class, religion or racial origin.’ So, according to this reading of the ‘new politics’, you have some people who enjoy vast wealth and exploit others ruthlessly, and then there are others who are deprived and exploited and spend most of their lives trying to keep their head above water and the wolves away from the door.

It doesn’t matter if your interest is treating people as a commodity and slashing worker wages or seeking a modicum of dignity for your existence: Fianna Fáil cherishes that interest most sincerely, and should you wish to pursue your interest, you will be most welcome at one of their surgeries. Donations welcome.

Very well, all this must go, and a proper republic must be declared. Glaring and hugely destructive inequalities in health care, education and in both participation and representation in the political realm must be tackled, if the place is not to go down the toilet permanently.

O’Toole recognises some degree of continuity of the past is required, and he looks to the democratic programme of the first Dáil as a decent reference point for the long austere slog ahead. That programme’s principles of Liberty, Equality and Justice, and its subordination of all right to private property to the public right and welfare, seem like just the ticket.

This is all stirring stuff, and it needs to be, since the vistas he describes in the fields of politics, health and education are, like Lord Denning said, most appalling. For someone like me with a young child, I read his account of the education system with a bead of sweat on my brow, thinking, I need to get the hell out of here.

If this new republic is to get off the ground, it needs active citizens prepared to step into the breach left by a sclerotic and corrupt political class. My main problem with O’Toole’s analysis is that he doesn’t give much thought to where these active citizens are going to come from. What, apart from family upbringing makes us see the world the way we do? The school and the workplace. So O’Toole is surely right to advocate that control of schools be brought under local democratic control. But he says nothing about work, or bringing that under democratic control.

In fact, he says very little at all about the economic system that will sustain this new republic. It’s all very well to have a declaration that says we will subordinate the right to private property to the public right and welfare, but that declaration can be easily made to accommodate a pragmatic acceptance of whatever neo-liberal requirements are the order of the day.

Or, to put it in broader terms, how can capitalist relations of production co-exist with the sort of active citizenship O’Toole advocates?

O’Toole’s list of remedial actions are moderate and commonsensical. Perhaps deliberately so, since opposition to most of them will be fierce, and it may well be that the exercise of demanding them will be a useful exercise in learning active citizenship. And yet there are a few problems.

For one, he agrees with the idea, advanced by Sen and Stiglitz among others, that GDP should no longer be the primary measure of progress. Why should it be a measure of progress at all? Here O’Toole buys into the idea that economic growth, regardless of the manner of that growth, is a measure of progress. Perhaps the republic will be resilient enough to endure global environmental catastrophe.

O’Toole cites potential economic growth as justification for extending university access to groups presently excluded. Well, maybe access to third-level education is indeed an important factor in ensuring economic growth.

But this is hardly the most important reason for enabling access to excluded groups.

O’Toole mentions John Dewey in passing in his discussion of education. But his own characterisation of education falls within the domain of what Dewey described as ‘the ordinary notion of education: the notion which ignores its social necessity and its identity with all human association that affects conscious life, and which identifies it with imparting information about remote matters and the conveying of learning through verbal signs’.

The danger, as Dewey saw it, was that since the ‘acquiring of information and of technical intellectual skill do not influence the formation of a social disposition, ordinary vital experience fails to gain in meaning, while schooling, in so far, creates only “sharps” in learning — that is, egoistic specialists.’

If the people of Ireland are to sustain and enrich their new egalitarian republic, can they do so as ‘egoistic specialists’?
O’Toole doesn’t address this. In fact, he endorses the idea of commodified education by endorsing the charging of university fees to those who can afford them, instead of the provision of universal free education for all through general taxation. In so doing, he risks ditching altogether the potential richness of the idea of the active citizen.

Finally, he says nothing about immigrants and how, or if, citizenship might work for them: a glaring omission, given the racialising tendencies of the present Irish state and the encroaching xenophobia worming its way into nation states across Europe.

Holy Families

I caught a little bit of a discussion on Radio 1 a few days back about the Roscommon Child Care case. Mary O’Rourke, speaking for the government, began by saying that the cause of the abuse was that there are very evil people in the world, and that responsibility for the abuse of the children lay with the parents, who are now being punished for that.

The problem with this way of looking at things is that if some people are simply evil and that is the end of it, then they can’t be held responsible. This is a point Terry Eagleton makes in ‘On Evil’. To say that people are just evil is to let them off the hook. At the same time, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the failures on the part of the authorities were set in train by the actions of the parents.

If we’re not prepared to accept pure evil as the cause, and I don’t think we should be, then we’d need to look at why some parents do these things to their children, as well as why state bodies fail to uphold the basic rights of children. These questions ought not be treated separately.

That is, if the law, and consequently state institutions, define families in a certain way, what effect does that have on how parents treat their children? And, on the other hand, what effect does family life have on the way law is written and acted upon? What I’m talking about here is what Adorno, in Education After Auschwitz, describes as the ‘societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms’. I don’t know how best to answer these questions, so I am just going to sketch out a few things that might assist in thinking about it.

Some conservatives, especially religious ones, see the family as the linchpin of society. When people get married, and have families, this produces social cohesion, virtue, stability, and protection. Every Christmas there is a lot of preaching about the virtue of the Holy Family, how Jesus, Mary and Joseph provide the ideal template for a family. This is in spite of the fact that there isn’t a great deal said in the Gospels about what they all got up to together.

There are different ways of looking at the Christmas myth. But most people know the bare bones of the story. Joseph had to take himself and his betrothed to Bethlehem for the census, because that is where Joseph was from (an absurd way of conducting a census, but there we go). There was no room at the inn (curiously, none of Joseph’s family was around either) so Mary and Joseph had to give birth in a stable. And then shepherds and wise men came to visit, and so both the humble shepherd and the learned sage, occupying opposing poles of the earthly order, both recognised that this baby was the Son of God.

One way of interpreting this is that all families should conform to what the existing order confers on them: if you’re born in a manger surrounded by muck and shit, then as the story of Jesus’s family shows, if it was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for you.

Likewise, if you have to give birth in a manger, after traipsing across the country on a donkey while nine months pregnant, well, we don’t hear any details about Mary complaining, do we? And as for Joseph, good on him for not getting into any arguments with the innkeepers.

That was pretty much the version of the Christmas story I heard time and again from priests, religious, and lay teachers. ‘Because there was no room for them in the inn’ were words declared simply as a matter of fact. They were never repeated with any sarcasm or scare quotes, which, if I somehow landed a job teaching the Bible, I would be sure to include.

Persisting with the conservative vision for the moment, if the family ideal is incarnate in Mary and Joseph, and then Jesus, then it is a vision of people who have to uproot themselves from their homes, and from any help they might receive from the community in which they live, in order to conform to the demands of the bureaucracy of the imperial state. They do this acceptingly, the teaching goes, because it is all part of God’s plan.

It is not at all that the conservative teaching on this is blind to the suffering this entails: on the contrary, Mary puts up with all this on account of her acceptance of God’s will, (‘Let what you have said be done unto me’), and consequently, patriarchal authority turns her into a designated object of veneration.

Mary’s supposed unquestioning acceptance of the gruelling treatment God has in store for her is elevated, in Ireland and elsewhere, to the model of behaviour that every woman must seek to emulate. Her example, and the failure to honour it, becomes an effective form of social control. To give one example from the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland, 1900:

THERE is a remarkable coincidence in the fact that a wild, desolate region of the remote, unflourishing county of Mayo, should, in the same year, become the scene of the inauguration of a mighty political movement that shook the social foundations to their center, namely the Land League, and also of a supernatural apparition the most wonderful.

A remarkable coincidence indeed.

A document on the excellent Lux Occulta blog – Family Prayers and Mixed Marriages, from the Catholic Truth Society, gives a useful example of how Catholic priests called forth their own particular conception of family within a natural order:

It is natural for us to be grateful. It is also natural for us to respect those who are cleverer than ourselves, or stronger, or more important, or even -although we stoutly deny it- those who are richer. A small boy is rapt in hero-worship of his big brother with his rifle, and his immense greatcoat and his iron shod boots. We naturally revere the queen, and, at least in principle, we respect the Government. We admire those who can quote volumes of poetry without taking thought or breath. We collect the autographs of famous footballers, actors, xylophone players and all the rest of them. We try to be superior, but we do admire excellence in other people, in whatever things they excel. We respect and have reverence for it, because it is natural to us.

Father Kevin Byrne, the author of the pamphlet, saw this natural sense of reverence toward the natural superior as the basis for relations between parents and children:

We feel this reverence and respect particularly for our parents. They gave us life; they listened undismayed to our infant screams, and suffered our childish faults in moderate silence, they educated us, with some help from the State; they fed us; they clothed us;  they even loved us. In return, there waxes and grows in every man a mysterious feeling of awe and reverence and love for his parents.

The idea that all parents, and their relations with their children are essentially the same flows through Kevin Byrne’s writing, as it does with many modern religious conservatives. What would it mean to question one’s parents?

One of the worst things we can say about anyone is that he neglects his parents, or is cruel to them; and the greatest punishment he can receive is to be treated in the same way by his own children because it is unnatural for children not to reverence their parents. If we follow our instincts, we must fulfil our duties to them.

Family life, then, is a matter of domination and submission. To fail to have reverence for this natural order was of itself a perversion. Parents, regardless of who they are, or what they do, are all deserving of the same reverence. It flows from this that the greater the lapse of reverence, the greater the cruelty of the punishment inflicted on the parent.

In practice, this would mean that a child who dared to question the punishment inflicted by the parent was simply proving the unnatural perversions that the parent had sought to correct in the first instance. From this, the more cruel and degrading the punishment, the greater the likelihood that the child would accept this punishment as just desert. And the greater the likelihood that the child, on becoming an adult, would recreate the same punishment and abuse on other children.

What was the relationship between this family and wider society?

Your family is part of you, it is an extension of your own personality. You and your family are inextricably bound together into one unit. Society is made up of families, not of individuals. The State is not like a giant ant-heap, with millions of lonely citizens rushing in and out of its citadel with huge burdens on their backs, and no thoughts in their heads but to increase productivity or perish. The State is composed of thousands of families, just as the body is composed of thousands of cells; and God made the family.

Only within the loving shelter of the family can a child be adequately educated in body and soul. God intended the human race to continue, and if it were not for the natural institution of marriage -that permanent union of man and wife in mutual love and fidelity- the human race could not remain, because the children could not survive without it.

Though Kevin Byrne’s vision of domination and submission within the family unit is not laid out in the Irish constitution, his conception of the relation between the family and society certainly is:

The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

In short, the Irish State’s definition of the family, resting on a very similar conception of the family developed in Catholic teaching and practice, provided a reference point, and a basic legitimacy, for a particular vision of families, which is to say, isolated authoritarian units that demanded obedience from children, reverence toward parents and the natural order, and treated any form of disobedience as a perversion.

Given the relative power of Church institutions in Ireland post-independence, it is also worth considering how the idea of the family was mobilised as a means of combatting the perceived threat of socialism.

Another document –A Catechism of The Social Question– from the US Social Action Department, also from the Lux Occulta site, provides an insight into part of an institution that was seeking to meet the perceived challenge to Church authority from socialism. The document is worth reading in its entirety. For the most part, it is way to the left of any mainstream political party in present-day Ireland. But it is its treatment of the family that is of interest. On the attitude of the Socialist Party (that is, the US party of Eugene Debs and Helen Keller) toward the family:

Socialism holds that the family, too, is merely a product of economic conditions, that the good of society is paramount, and that society must dominate men and their families. The family is not to their mind a unit with natural rights. The ties of the family should be very loose, so that society can intervene very easily, and, according to its desires, or the desires of the majority, do whatever it wills with the children and the whole family unit. Consequently, it favors the freest kind of divorce, and in the name of freedom proclaims its adherence to a loose conception of family ties.

The preservation of the family as the necessary basis of social order, then, was also the protection of society against the godless reds. Hence the opposition to state provision of free health care, infamously so in the Mother and Child Scheme affair. A Hierarchy letter to John A. Costello illustrates the stance involved:

The powers taken by the State in the proposed Mother and Child Health Service are in direct opposition to the rights of the family and of the individual and are liable to very great abuse. Their character is such that no assurance that they would be used in moderation could justify their enactment. If enacted they would constitute a ready-made instrument for future totalitarian aggression.

Cited in John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland, by John Cooney

Shades of the sort of billionaire-funded right-wing sentiment on display in the US over the modest health reforms planned by the Obama administration. It is not too hard to imagine a parish priest denouncing Noel Browne’s planned death panels. The point, though, is the interplay of Church doctrine and State law, which itself drew heavily on Church influence, setting the boundaries on how people’s lives were lived, and how they ought to look after each other.

If Mary Harney looked the other day as though she had been washed in the blood of the lamb, it was not least because the health system, in so far as such a thing exists, is an improvised bulwark against ‘totalitarian aggression”, in the Church’s terms, or, as others might call it, “freedom”.

As it turned out, the reds didn’t get a look in. The chief victims of totalitarian aggression were  children. The totalitarian aggression was promoted and sustained by the Church, and enabled by the law. When evidence was found that the sacred unit, the basic moral institution, could fail, its victims were spirited off to slave labour.

Diarmuid Ferriter, reviewing memoirs of Irish childhood, reports the following:

Given the emphasis on the family in Irish life it might have been thought that Irish society would be particularly conscious of its responsibilities towards the welfare of children. Disturbingly, many of the memoirs reveal it was often the institution of the family which could mask a calculated savagery in its treatment of children and furthermore, that some of these children taken away from the family -supposedly because of its failings- were subjected to a childhood of brutality and harshness in institutions failed by the state and were in effect deprived of any childhood. In this sense, any analysis of child abuse in twentieth century Ireland must take cognisance of the interaction of family, church and state and the extent to which a crucial part of Catholic social teaching was continually being promoted – that the state had no right to interfere with the personal domain of the family when it came to perceived private issues of health and morality, and that the church would seek to maintain absolute control over its perceived areas of interest.

It’s worth considering whether adequate dividing lines can be drawn that allow us to discern three separate but interacting entities of family, church, and state. That is, if we talk about the family, do we mean the form outlined in the constitution, which in turn derives from church teaching? Do we gravitate toward a particular form of the family -the unitary building block- which has been instituted as a universal ideal?

For the Roscommon children, the universal ideal of the family as a moral institution had catastrophic consequences. Social workers were ‘were unduly optimistic about the parents’ ability and willingness to care adequately for their children’. The children’s own voices were ignored, with ‘an over-reliance on parental accounts of their well-being’.

There has been a lot of focus on the intervention of Mena Bean Ui Chribin intervened directly in proceedings, since the High Court injunction she achieved meant that the Western Health Board did not remove the children from the way of severe harm from their parents. But whilst Bean Ui Chribin is rightly portrayed as an unwelcome relic of more authoritarian times, the decisive intervention here was that of the High Court, on account of its interpretation of the constitution and in particular, the rights of the parents. It might be reassuring to tell this tale in terms of a malign action of a wicked witch from the past, but the legal scene had been set for a long time for such an appearance.

In terms of the state body intended to protect the children’s welfare, Bean Ui Chribin had nothing to do with the ‘extraordinary optimism’ in the parents’ ability to change. Nor with ‘the squalor in which the children almost constantly lived’.

In a way Fr Kevin Byrne would surely have approved, the social workers ‘accepted largely at face value’ the ‘views and opinions of the parents’, and, in a way consistent with the necessary ‘mysterious feeling of awe and reverence’ for parents Fr Byrne identifies, they ‘lacked the assertiveness to confront the parents appropriately when required and did not adequately challenge them regarding the effect their behaviour was having on the children’.

But there was no discernible religious extremism in the fact that, in the case conferences supposed to be concerned with the children’s protection, ‘frequently the decisions and recommendations emerged were not linked to matters of primary concern, namely the needs of the children’, or in the fact that ‘there is still no targeted family support service in Roscommon for families with young children where informal family support, or universal family support services, are not adequate to meet the needs of the children and families’.

How to explain a system that pays no importance to the views of children, trusts parents when there is no justification for so doing, and leaves families with young children to fend for themselves? I think it has to do with the dominant conception of the family in Irish society. It is both the product and the instrument of an authoritarian culture. I noted on another occasion that:

‘But the Church grinds on with its project of sustaining the family as the foundation of the social order, resisting anything and everything that it sees as militating against its sanctity.

It does so seemingly blind to, or willfully ignorant of, how, as Marx put it, “the bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour”.’

I would need to revise this a bit. It’s not that the Church was blind to such ‘disgusting bourgeois clap-trap’: it needed it to conserve its power. And Irish children continue to suffer the consequences. So we can either make up seductive stories about evil people, extremist witches and negligent social workers, or we can take a long hard look at how the supposed sacred family unit has laid waste to countless lives in the service of the state’s rulers, leaving a population trained to show reverence to natural superiors and take whatever punishment is dished out.

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November 2010