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Politics, deliberation, and public action dissolve under the relentless pressure for leveraging one’s self into a position of greater human capital and competitive advantage. The state remodels itself as a firm, the university as a factory, and the self as an object with a price tag.” *

The Left in Ireland is comprised of local examples of world movements and doctrines. It loves issues and campaigns. Tackling broad theory – never mind creating a plausible alternative – is not regarded as essential. That’s a fundamental error.

You see, there’s always been your man at the bar, the drunk who has the answers, the bar-stool approach to politics. You know how it goes: everyone is selfish, politicians are all crooks and/or stupid, public servants and experts are all incompetent, thoughtful citizens are sheeple and we need a revolution to put ordinary people in charge – people power!

However, something has changed because this kind of stupidity is no longer deplored. It is tolerated beyond the drunk at the bar. It has been brought out into the open, patronised and promoted. Moreover, it is the preferred weapon of the rich and powerful who see in it the possibility of undoing a century of state welfare systems and controls on markets. Unfortunately, they are aided by too many gullible leftists who bizarrely seem to think that angry stupidity could possibly be a working class trait.**

An impoverished and downright nasty understanding of what it means to be human and consequently of human rationality is now dominant and it is rarely – if ever – questioned. Because docile acceptance has political consequences, journalism bears a heavy responsibility. Journalism generally reflects dominant viewpoints, failing to question thoroughly the driving assumptions and theory behind them. Moreover, conventional news is fed by “anti-establishment” activists providing a flow of protest and outrage over discrete issues.

The term neo-liberalism can be both useful and superficial; it is scattered around – particularly by leftists – and it works fairly well to trigger emotions over an “issue”. However, any attempt to discuss it or – heaven forbid – compare it to plain liberalism prompts groans, wilful ignorance and the patronising claim that ordinary people won’t understand or are not interested. This is precisely how the left becomes conservative – campaigning, protesting, pressurising on issues while refusing to demand – no, cause – public discourse on what makes them issues.

The reason that Liberal thought survived left criticism for so long was that it delivered security, health, education, welfare and decent jobs; it reached an accommodation with capitalism and that accommodation became the establishment.*** Liberals – now often referred to as Classic Liberals – emphasised human dignity, mutual respect and fair procedures. They tended to insist that in making a decision, possible harm should be considered and avoided. They weren’t prioritising pay-offs; they were considering wider outcomes, consequences. This is what neo-liberalism seeks to destroy. It’s not just posing as anti-establishment; it really is.

Neo-liberalism then is utterly different. It looks at life as a competition, a constant struggle for scarce resources and dominance. It is built not only on a dismal view of human nature and rationality but but also on non-cooperative Game Theory. It is worth emphasising that Game Theory was developed not for ordinary citizen relationships but for working out nuclear strategies during the Cold War. The idea is that everyone is an adversary and decision-making is based on narrow, self-interested, “rational” choice.**** This approach was imported first into business and finance, and then into wider aspects of life and society. It favours competitive market solutions to all questions, undermines solidarity, fellow-feeling, goodwill, the state, welfare provisions, expertise, human decency and values – especially the values of classic liberalism – all in a drive towards radical privatisation, reducing citizens to contractors and/or customers who conduct relationships on the basis of quid pro quo. (Remember that gobshite on the bar stool.)

In Ireland today it is certainly true that many – more likely, most – citizens believe that self determination is expressed merely in consumer choice. They have been bludgeoned into this belief by a refusal of journalism and activists to contradict the dominant view. Choice has come to mean consumer choice and the citizen has been reduced to a customer of service providers. Public service – once a well understood, honourable and decent way of life – is now a matter of reacting to customers. Government departments, county councils, state bodies and industries, having abandoned citizenship, now operate to customer charters and the like, and prefer to deal with clients.

In many instances the left has gone along with all this. Their cooperation has perhaps three causes. Firstly, they may for populist reasons be unwilling to challenge orthodoxy when expressed by “ordinary workers”. Secondly, they may not see the significance of the contrast between customer and citizen. Thirdly, they may see customer relations as an improvement on some of the high-handed carry on that brought public service into disrepute. Incidentally, for whatever reasons Dublin South County Council when dominated by a strong group of Labour councillors, declined even to discuss a move from customer to citizen relationships.

When a theory becomes dominant – even orthodox – there are outcomes across the globe and Ireland is a case in point. Irish acceptance of bar-stool guff dressed up as Neo-liberalism leads necessarily to privatisation, market-based solutions to all problems and the reduction of the citizen to a mere customer living in an endless chaos of markets.

The anti-intellectual eye-rolling at the mere mention of “neo-liberal” functions not only to stifle counter theory but to prevent critique and thus cement the doctrine. Unable or unwilling to challenge at a theoretical level, the left is reduced to skirmishing over, say, particular privatisations, guaranteeing that it will win occasionally, lose frequently and not even slow the march. Perhaps the best hope the Irish left has is that critique and counter theory at an international level will win out and leftward change will seep into Ireland. That would be passive, shamefully passive.

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* https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/uses-and-abuses-neoliberalism-debate

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** Technology has had a crucial effect on work, employment and capitalism. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/

**** If this is of interest, see: S.M. Amadae, Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neo-liberal Political Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Anyone who thinks that acceptance of neo-liberal, bar-stool beliefs was accidental or that it can be combated by way of activism, should consider reading, Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: the deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America (Scribe UK, 2017)

Here’s Vincent’s piece marking Rousseau’s 300th birthday. http://www.politico.ie/irish-politics/8644-rousseau-distrust-representative-democracy-well-founded.html

There are two basic arguments for the move away from direct democracy to representative democracy. Firstly, there’s the numbers argument: The population is too large for everyone to attend the meeting, so we’ll elect representatives. There is a debate emerging on changes being made possible by the ICTs but I don’t want to pursue it here.

The second argument is generally forgotten. This is the argument that taking part in informed debate requires a level of education, absorption of facts and arguments, deliberation and judgement, and that all of this is so time consuming that we have to professionalise. However, representative democracy shouldn’t lock the masses out of the consideration of great issues because we have media to promote and relay the information and arguments to the citizens, facilitating a functioning public sphere.

The whole thing goes off the rails when the representatives don’t deliberate and argue, the media don’t demand deliberation and argument, and the citizens are generally content with political gossip.

It used to be possible to contrast the liberal notion of citizenship with its more participative republican rival. The liberal citizen would like to be left to a comfortable private life unconcerned – apart from voluntary work – with public affairs. The republican citizen would like to be involved in all matters of controversy concerning the republic. Something different has now emerged or re-emerged: the peasant.

Of course I’m being provocative by using the word “peasant”. I could come up with an obscure term that would offend no one and would hide the connection with a genuinely peasant approach to politics.

Peasant societies were characterised by inequality, acceptance and occasional revolts. Rulers knew that there were limits. Peasants made demands. A little change here and a little change there kept the system going until …    I could write a long essay on the emergence of the modern world but I’ll spare you.

The point is that we now have a considerable degree of acceptance that there is a “political class” which is seen to be essentially bad and all powerful but which can be frightened into concessions on “issues” organised and defined by “activists” who “work on the ground” or “in the communities” to “raise awareness”. This leaves the universal approaches of socialism, liberalism, conservatism and their derivatives seemingly irrelevant.

When someone says that they reject right and left, that the political class is all the same, he/she should be taken very seriously. It is an expression of post-political beliefs reinforced by media professionals who deride politicians, see no need for rigorous political discourse and treat all information and argument equally. That person who rejected left and right might be happy to be labelled, say, “a post-politics activist” but would very likely go ape at “peasant” or “peasant organiser”.

There is course another view: that what we are looking at is complex capitalism and again a whole other essay beckons. Suffice it to say that Marx knew a peasant when he saw one!