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Tag Archives: peter mair

It’s very easy to be glib about the approach of those Irish left politicians and parties who prefer street agitation to participation in government.

Despite their relatively small size, a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left”, “socialist left” or “hard left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. A journalist/interviewer asking them if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system.

Supporting and fomenting popular protest without due regard to its political content – i.e. whether or not it is right or left wing – while discrediting and distancing themselves from parliament, makes revolutionary sense. While it is certain that socialist revolutionaries still exist, it is decades since I’ve met one. I’ve tried but in recent years my discussions with, let’s call them, militant socialists have failed to discover a revolutionary.

There are many who use the word “revolution” but their use is meaningless within ordinary political discourse. When questioned about their intentions, i.e. when asked explicitly if they want to overthrow or break the existing political system and replace it, their replies are pretty consistent. They tend to be shocked, suspicious or hurt and they deny any revolutionary intent. They are essentially playing with the word. They don’t mean a revolution in the conventional sense; they don’t want to create a crisis during which they will seize power and rule for the common good.

Neither do they want to join the socialist tradition which seeks reforms through parliament.

This approach is by no means thoughtless. On the contrary it is a developing strand of leftism with old and deep roots. Historically, left revolutionaries viewed the bourgeois state as irredeemable, to be smashed and replaced by popular, local, grass-roots institutions run by workers. The revolutionaries had no time for socialists who favoured a parliamentary route of winning elections in order to govern in the interests of the masses or gradually to create socialism by reform piled on reform. The former went their way and governed huge areas of the world but fell into a rapid decline in the late 20th century especially with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The latter went on to become part of the establishment, supplying Labour and Socialist Party governments, especially in Western Europe.

Reducing parliament to an area of struggle alongside street protest makes little sense without revolutionary intent. However, for activists who have spent so long decrying slow reform by way of parliament as mere social democracy, the abandonment of revolution and integration with the Labour/European Socialist mainstream, would probably seem a humiliation or even some kind of betrayal. They have come to, however, a solution – a workable compromise and yes, I’m afraid, it’s yet another third way – which maintains the trappings and style of revolution while becoming integral to the cargo/pressure system of politics. That system is one which has long dismissed universal objectives or political values as a basis for policy and instead operates by way of competing groups (some interest and some geographic, a polyarchy) which exert pressure on the government/political class/establishment to achieve a higher priority in state spending or delivery of infrastructure against rival groups. Leftists who have little or no time for parliament and government have found a niche: they now compete to represent workers not as the working class making universal demands but as a group confronting the establishment in pursuit of favourable treatment.

Apart from single-issue independents, it is new and fresh in Ireland to take explicit pressure group campaigning into parliament and to be seen to be confronting government rather than participating – even as loyal opposition. Should this course be successful, imitation is inevitable.

It’s a paradox really: that without revolution, revolutionary socialists have established a role within the cargo/pressure political system, a system that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens. Stated bluntly, they are now conservatives. The task of achieving reforms aimed specifically at changing the system and at altering the structure of inequality then falls to socialists who will demand such reforms as the price extracted for governing in coalition with supporters of the system. They will be decried in and out of parliament by those who prefer that political decisions and priorities be determined by the constant struggle of competing pressure groups and they will unfavourably be compared by establishment journalists to “principled” or “real” socialists – the “hard left” – who strike revolutionary poses while dependably supporting the cargo/pressure system, campaigning like all other parties for delivery to a locale or preferment for a group. Sadly, that group seeking preferment is what they are making of the working class.


Because it is in the constituency of a government minister the probable re-opening of Stepaside Garda station faces an outpouring of contrived disapproval. It is argued that reopening at Stepaside would be a disgraceful political stroke and no way to establish priorities in state provision. Gimme a break! In my local area (Lucan, Co. Dublin) another minister has been instrumental – or so she claims – in “delivering” a different “cargo”, a swimming pool. She has been praised for her efforts and her rivals are envious. A local on-line magazine sees delivery of cargo for the “local community” as the sole criterion when evaluating elected politicians. Moreover, politicians are regarded as an undifferentiated group, political values or ideology simply don’t feature. Leaflets from potential candidates and elected representatives almost without exception talk about getting stuff and supporting campaigns to get stuff; an over-used slogan is, “Delivering for the people of Lucan”. All of these deliverers are fighting an “establishment” which it is feared is delivering elsewhere.*

In short, Minister Shane Ross, is doing precisely what the overwhelming majority of the citizens see as his job. He is operating the Irish political system of cargo/pressure. If Stepaside Garda Station reopens, his rivals will be hopping mad, his reputation for delivery will be secured and his chances of re-election considerably enhanced. Now, Stepaside is a relatively prosperous area and very likely has a relatively educated electorate. We’re not therefore talking about poor people who will “sell” their vote for some personal or local advantage. They are just like the people in Lucan and other places who either think there is no other way of prioritising or who have thought about politics and see the Irish system as prefereable.

There is, however, some sense of shame. Otherwise the audience for ritual condemnation of “stroke politics” would be tiny but there is no substantial, real opposition. Ireland has a functioning, conservative system, supported by the overwhelming majority and one which no political party opposes.

It gets worse.

Ireland has regulated political lobbying and lobbyists. The idea was to take this shady activity and make it transparent. The lobbyists and their companies are of course pleased; they’ve been institutionalised (No, they’ve been quasi-constitutionalised.) made respectable and given professional status. They can say honestly that they are essential to the political system. In truth the reason a dodgy, undemocratic process of influence was not banned is that it’s integral to the accepted political system.

It gets worse still.

Many of those who would wield influence beyond that of a citizen consider themselves advocates and reject the idea that they are lobbyists. They argue that because their employers are not big business but charities, non-government agencies etc. and because their demands are praiseworthy, they are altogether different. Their demands are indeed different but in terms of wielding influence greater than that of a citizen, they are the same. Moreover, they are salaried professionals using their skill to operate within the system.

Then there’s the staff at independent stautory bodies. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) is charged among other things with advocating in favour of competition; it even has a Director of Advocacy.**

Do you think it couldn’t get worse?

At this point it becomes very, very serious because the cargo/pressure system has absorbed activists and they are not only happy about it, they also continue to believe they are anti-establishment. There might have been a time when a citizen motivated by political values or by an alternative view of what constitutes the good society, would join roughly like-minded people in a political party. The idea being to effect change by the parliamentary route. Today such a citizen would be decried as “establishment” and would likely face opposition to assuming the label, “activist”.

Political parties per se are now often rejected. That rejection reduces the liklihood that the orthodox will be challenged by a coherent view of a different good society. We now experience a tyranny of issues and if your issue is not recognised or if you want to talk about matters larger than issues, there is little chance that you’ll gain a place within public discourse.

The label political activist today is generally accepted without question. People become political activists. Some are full time. Others mention it in their portmanteau of occupations which helps express an identity. It is assumed that they favour social justice and that they are anti-establishment.

The political activist of today selects issues, becomes part of a campaigning group or joins a political party which is resolutely not an establishment party, a party of government. The objective is to force the establishment to concede on an issue which generally speaking and after a familiar struggle it does but always without damaging the system. Following a concession or “victory over the establishment”, activists refocus and attention turns to another issue. It is a stable, conservative system and processing or resolving isolated issues constitutes orderly management.

I’ve argued in an earlier blog that the Irish system prefigured or was at least well prepared for the arrival of

what some commentators see as a new form of democracy, a democracy changed so as to accommodate a near universal disdain for politics with citizens and politicians sharing what Peter Mair has called an ‘anti-political sentiment’.*** The term refers to the abandonment of any kind of universal objective and the decline of traditional forms of parties which represented such objectives. This is nothing less than the replacement of the demos with shifting civil society groups and alliances, together with “rational” or “practical” approaches to policy – doing whatever works without recourse to divisive debate about values or long-term objectives.

Apart from occasional outbursts of mock outrage over stroke politics this all works very well and has widespread support. Conservatives see little change. Members of the government can campaign for cargo to be delivered to their constuency and their re-election may depend on it. The influence of the rich and powerful is now codified, transparent and quasi-constitutional. Charity can lobby for a bit more. Media can accommodate and aid the campaigning of the causes they favour. All can make demands without being asked at whose expense they should be satisfied. With almost everyone keen to be seen as anti-establishment, real dissent is rare and unlikely to be effective. On the left revolution has been abandoned and the working class reduced to a campaigning pressure group.

I wrote some time ago, “In Ireland all of the political parties represented in parliament support the political system in which priorities are set, decisions are made, infrastructure is positioned by way of campaigns which put pressure on the government/political class. They may differ on campaign issues and interest groups favoured but there is no opposition to the basic system.”I’ve argued the need for at least one opposition party, prefereably a leftist party and I’ve suggested that Labour has the credentials and the motivation to risk taking this course.ᶲᶲ  The risk is very real because the number of republican/participative citizens who oppose the established cargo/pressure system is unknown.


* A Cargo Cult is a group which believes that if proper ceremonies are performed shipments of riches will be sent from heaven.



I learned early that there is a great deal of pretence when it comes to choosing one’s appearance. Claims of comfort, fashion or even the word of God are often used to deflect questions or discussion. You see, I went to a Christian Brothers school, an appalling dump, managed and staffed by – let’s say – malefactors, and one of the ways I resisted and annoyed them was to grow my hair slightly long and wear mildly eccentric clothes. I knew what I was doing and never resorted to the defence of fashion or the common, “Jesus had long hair!” I remember a Brother standing over me fuming and spitting, “I know what you’re doing. You’re showing disrespect to me and all I stand for.” Knowing the risks of pushing provocation too far, I stayed silent, thinking, “How right you are, ye thundering bollocks.”

Now, that was a forceful – even antagonistic – statement expressed through appearance. But it’s not always the case. Dress is much more often a passive statement of a willingness to conform (to fit in, to dress appropriately) and/or an affiliation statement as in, “Hey look, I’m a manager cos I dress like you” or “Look, I never wear a tie; I’m just like the anti-establishment guys in Syriza”. Between the forceful and the passive are many mild but thoughtful statements. For example, I like to dress informally – routinely jeans and a casual top or tee shirt. However, as an adult when asked to lecture at University College Dublin, I presented myself quite formally. I did so for a minor and a major reason. Firstly, I thought it might improve my credibility. Much more importantly, I did so to express myself honoured to be working there and to express my respect for the students.

Those who attend the Dáil or Seanad wearing message-emblazoned T-shirts or studiously avoiding anything remotely formal, do so in a deliberate, thoughtful way.Their decision is like mine when dressing for my lowlife teachers and unlike mine when dressing for my respected students. Moreover, their expressive appearance says something which is not merely consistent with their political stance but goes to its core.

A requirement of their political stance is the reduction of the supremacy of parliament. Parliament, they contend, is simply one site for struggle and progress/concessions will be won there as well as on the streets and in workplaces. I’ve argued elsewhere that this approach is essentially conservative and easily accommodated within the Irish cargo/pressure political system.*

Parliament, moreover, is where the “establishment parties”, the “political class”, the “government” etc. reside. Everything about parliament signals establishment: it is constitutional, procedural, inhabited by the well off and the educated, and – yes – the well dressed/groomed who obey its rules and are respectful, and who seem to thrive in that environment.

Anti-establishment has been recently redefined as against all that sort of thing and anyone wishing to be so identified could not possibly dress and behave respectfully in parliament. The dress statement must be antagonistic to the institution of parliament and the establishment of which it is part. Elections are not fought to get into parliament to participate in government. They are fought to get into parliament in order to show disrespect for the establishment, especially the constitutional position of parliament, to show that an activist is consistent, whether in parliament or demonstrating outside the gate. The idea is that there’s nothing very special and certainly not supreme about parliament. It’s just an opportunity to confront the establishment.


* It’s what I’ve termed “left conservatism”: the integration of left campaigning to the point where it functions to stabilise the system.

Ireland is a small component part of western liberal democracy. For that reason it shares current concerns about the direction or the very future of democracy. However, its dominant political model uncannily prefigures the emergent model in other countries.

A number of theorists are convinced that the kind of liberal democracy that has existed for the last century or so has arrived at an existential crisis. It is argued that democracy is in the throes of change in order to accommodate a near universal disdain for politics with citizens and politicians sharing what Peter Mair has called an ‘anti-political sentiment’.* The term refers to the abandonment of any kind of universal objective and the decline of traditional forms of parties which represented such objectives. This is nothing less than the replacement of the demos with shifting civil society groups and alliances, together with “rational” or “practical” approaches to policy – doing whatever works without recourse to divisive debate about values or long-term objectives.

Ireland, it will be recalled, during the lberal-democratic century was never typical. Ireland preferred a system which heaped disdain on politics, universal values and ideas – and this was long before other countries arrived at this juncture. Such considerations were seen as “intellectual” (frequently a term of abuse in Ireland) and unnecessarily divisive when compared to “pragmatic” policies. Ireland, for so long seen as unlike other countries in which left and right clashed over political values, now finds itself in the post-political mainstream: an example of a system without need of discursive politics in any meaningful sense of the term. It might indeed be possible to say without laughing that western liberal democracy is tending towards the traditional Irish model!

That model sees a ruling “political class” faced by pressure groups with attendant activists who demand concessions. It is a stable, conservative system in which the best supported civil society or interest groups are favoured over their rivals. There is no question of debating social priorities, never mind political values or contending visions of a good society.

The media play two roles. The most prominent one is publicising the various claimants and helping to decide which will receive favour and to what extent. Their second role is less obvious. It involves presenting the political model as common sense, as “realism” or the way the world works. Their presentation places the model beyond criticism, and certainly outside of the accepted realm of political controversy. In short, media relentlessly promote this singular view without the slightest thought that it could be challenged, never mind that it ought to be “balanced” by a different perspective. **


* Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy by Peter Mair, Verso, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 84467 324 7