Reflections on the Lack of Revolution In Ireland, Continued

I haven’t got through reading all the articles on May Day International, but there is lots of excellent and important stuff, not least this absolutely brilliant piece by Costas Douzinas on the European Union. Excerpt:

But there is another tradition that belongs to the left. Liberal cosmopolitans forget that the first to call himself cosmopolites was Diogenes the Cynic. He was a fierce critic of institutions, conventions and the powerful unlike the Roman Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius who are presented as the founding fathers of cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan tradition takes place in the streets of Athens and Paris more than in the backroom negotiations of bankers and elite politicians, in the parrhesia of the young rather than the monotony of TV commentators and the hospitality towards the excluded and persecuted.

You may also be interested in my piece on why there hasn’t been too much resistance in Ireland. I didn’t find my own explanation entirely convincing, or at least sufficiently comprehensive, so I would like to expand on a few things that came to mind when I was writing it but just didn’t have the right combination of chops and space to fit it in. I focused on the matters of property ownership, debt and working conditions because while it’s fairly obvious to most people that these are important factors in curtailing resistance, I think we are bombarded far too much with the idea that what really keeps people in their place is the quality of their ideas.

This is what O’Toole is saying: people think in certain ways because this was the way of life they grew up with. And it follows from this that all that might need to be done is to somehow get people to think the right thoughts. I think there’s a kind of seductiveness to this, because it allows you to keep politics confined to what often gets called ‘the marketplace of ideas’, where the material conditions in which the ideas get produced can get safely ignored, and instead of class conflict you get high-minded sweet reasonableness. The other thing I chose – which is the whole question of trade union resistance and the noxious effect of social partnership, not only on trade unions but on democratic politics- I don’t think I fleshed out too well. I would add to what I wrote that it allows for a displaced class conflict staged via the media. So the government and the trade unions basically play the role of the ruling class, and are held up as a lightning rod for resentment, thus distracting attention from IBEC et al.

It is remarkable how often ‘vested interests’ gets used as a phrase to describe some power-hungry politician or some overpaid trade union official, and maybe even property developers and bankers, but is never used to refer to the vested interests of the owning class in Irish society. You never hear any politician of any mainstream party, and certainly not any opinion-maker of any significance, refer to the ‘vested interests’ of Intel, or Tesco, or Dermot Desmond. These entities and people simply form part of the natural habitat in which the rest of us are thrust. The effect of all this is to crush any idea that the institutions of government, or trade unions, can function as the instrument of democratic politics. It engineers apathy, despair and anti-political attitudes among the population.

The amount of right-wing economic propaganda directed at people is just insane, even by the standards of most free-market states. It is hard to imagine that there is a country in the world with a higher ratio of household name celebrity right-wing economists per capita. Perhaps somewhere like Chile in the Pinochet years, I don’t know. You have this raft of guys who are employees of banks and financial institutions, and they go on to RTE or Newstalk or wherever, and they just vomit forth all this stuff that has a veneer of scientificity, but the way in which they’re treated, the whole performance, they’re like a priestly caste, as I was discussing with Eoin the other day. Then there is the whole smart-ass masculine-dominated coverage of economics. This ties in with the whole property-owning democracy thing, of course, where politics is something for the politicians, and what you really need to be worrying about is how that fetish abstraction known as ‘the economy’ is going to affect your house price, your pension, your job prospects, and so on.

It is now at the point in Irish society where democratic politics is forestalled because people think they have use economistic prophylactics whenever moral statements are involved. So on the rare occasion that someone comes out and says something like, “I don’t think that people on minimum wage should be effectively increasing the subsidy to the likes of Tesco and Pfizer by paying higher personal taxes while the latter two pay nothing extra”, the response is always “ah now but if we raised corporation tax then that would make the country less competitive and then we’d all have no jobs so you can’t do that.” The important bit for me here is how the “you can’t do that” element of these responses never gets subjected to any scrutiny. To say “you can’t do that because they’d do this” is to say something concrete about what the power of these entities entails. They can screw people. Now in a normally functioning society the next question would be: should these corporations be allowed to screw people? Ask yourself when the last time you heard anything approaching this line of questioning, either in print or broadcast media, where the person making the comments was either a) denounced as a nutter; b) systematically interrupted; c) a token radical. This is the sort of thing I was talking about when it came to Ireland’s church-free authoritarian conservatism.

A whole other area is the cordon sanitaire thrown around any sort of direct action. Having grown up in Northern Ireland and had massive bombs going off a couple of hundred yards down the road, having seen burning 18 wheeler lorries out the front door of the house at 6 in the morning, and basically lived in a climate of fear for a good few years, I have to say that the fear propagated in relation to even the mildest physical agitation here is simply stunning. That time the SWP protesters bum rushed the Dail car park you’d have thought Leinster House had been under sustained attack from a helicopter gunship. And then there was the time the éirígí councillor chucked the red paint over Mary Harney and Joe Duffy started asking her if the next thing would be snipers on the streets. I didn’t live in the Republic until ten years ago, so I never really got a perspective on how people viewed the war in the North. But I get the impression that that part of the island was portrayed as a hellhole, in deliberate contrast with the peaceful, orderly southern State. You don’t get it so much nowadays, but in the first couple of years I lived here I would get people saying to me that they wouldn’t go north in case a bomb went off. (Strangely enough this sentiment was never accompanied by any concern for my family, all of whom had been spending an awful lot of time there.)

If you read Eoghan Harris’s column today, and there is no need, believe me, you can see a pretty good distillation of the imagined effects of this paramilitary consomme. An unholy collection of reds and republicans and red republicans, all with indelible psychopathological insecurities, and driven on by fundamental misconceptions of how the real world works, which is to say, neoliberal capitalism trussed up as ‘social democracy’, risk engulfing the State in disaster. Harris of course is an extreme case, but I think he’s fairly in tune with the role these grotesques play in the ebb and flow of news reporting and analysis. There is a controlling function to the whole anti-republican/anti-dissident posture adopted by politicians and commentators: we must be careful not to get any radical ideas about democratic control of natural resources in case the Real IRA blows your town centre to bits, killing your family, scaring off all the American multinationals, and plunging the country into untold decades of darkness. Seems reasonable to expect this sort of thing to intensify as popular anger begins to manifest itself the streets, as I believe it will.


3 Responses to “Reflections on the Lack of Revolution In Ireland, Continued”

  1. 1 John Joseph McDermott May 2, 2011 at 7:17 am

    Only the vested interests organize protests and even those are not well attended, although when David Begg or Jack O’Connor leads the posse it gets widespread publicity,TV interviews etc.. and-as you indicate- much hullabaloo.
    Many of the sheep don’t want to attend a unionised protest.

  2. 2 William Wall May 2, 2011 at 8:39 am

    This ‘consensus’ that you’re focusing on, Hugh, has me completely mystified. I tend to explain it to myself with the ‘common sense’ v ‘good sense’ dichotomy. For example, during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, common sense told us that all was well and we were a great little nation on the up. But when you spoke to actual people they were much more realistic. How could they pay these massive mortgages (or rents)? Where would the people come from who were supposed to live in these mushrooming estates? Why was the entire state founded on stamp duty? Why, with all the money, were people lying on trolleys in hospitals? Why was there a housing list? And so on. Most people knew that what the economists were saying made no sense but they did not have the educational or ideological apparatus to break it down. Out of this lack of understanding, our lords and masters have fashioned the idea that ‘we all bought into it’. So, an electrician married to a teacher, paying 100% too much for a three bed semi in city housing estate was conveniently interpreted as greed. Whereas the electrician and the teacher saw it as a way to escape the crap standard of housing and high rents that pertained in the rental sector. From their point of view, a three-bed semi was a much better place to raise a family than a one bed apartment consisting mainly of insulation and cladding. That they had to get on ‘the property ladder’ before the prices soared out of sight was something hammered home to them by every banker, economist, journalist and politician in the country. Nevertheless, they knew they were screwed even before the electrician lost his job and the house went into negative equity. They knew they’d been ripped off by the system but they didn’t know how.

    • 3 Hugh Green May 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm

      William, I used to share a flat with a guy who worked fairly high up in the mortgages section at one of the big banks. In 2003 he told me about how at his bank they had been doing customer segmentation and were now grading plumbers, electricians and other trades as the top targets for the sale of new mortgages. Not 2006 or 2007 – 2003. Now if you’re high up in a bank, higher than this guy was anyway and you know they’re targetting electricians, wouldn’t it occur to you that maybe there isn’t enough demand in the economy from people whose livelihoods don’t depend on the property market? Of course it would. The point for me here is that these people knew full well that come crunch time, they could offload the problem onto the state. But by that time, they’d be gone anyway. The people who bought mortgages, they might have had their doubts about the long-term viability of their jobs, but the banks sure as hell weren’t going to encourage them to entertain those doubts. That’s what I find so revolting about this whole ‘we’re all guilty’ thing. The banks engineered a position of authority within society in collaboration with the media, and then when people went to them wondering if they could get a mortgage, well, as you say, they didn’t have the tools to think it through. Why would they? Who the hell -apart from economists- has the self-confidence to divine the future turns that capitalist economies are going to take? So these people heard the banks talking about how they’d go to the underwriters and verify that they did indeed qualify for a mortgage – the whole thing was set up in such a way that their doubts were *assuaged* by the banks. The banks were the ones who were saying that the prices of the houses were rational. For the likes of Bini Smaghi and Nyberg to be talking about shared responsibility, well, they make me sick, but at the end of the day these characters are socialising the responsibility because that’s how you gain consent for socialising the debt.

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