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.