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It is understandable and indeed predictable that activists, having found that protest is utterly pointless, would resort to something else – something distinguished by the term, “effective protest”.

When activists express a desire to have effective protest, they make the point that protest is ineffective. That’s true. While an exceptionally large turn out or the attendance of normally compliant people may prompt a government to pause for thought, the days of authorities quaking when people decide to march are long gone. The talk now is of security and stewarding, with organisers looked upon as managers. Indeed, it is now usual to hear senior police officers say not only that people have a right to protest but that police will defend that right.

Long experience has revealed that protest is unthreatening but there’s more: protest has been institutionalised. It has become quasi-constitutional, a part of the way that politics is done. It is now an effective lightning conductor, discharging anger and resentment safely to earth. It is conservative, part of the management of dissent.

Political activists tend to enjoy protests. They rate them as good or relatively good and reminisce about protests they’ve attended. It’s a badge of honour to be able to claim attendance at some of the famous ones. It’s even a way of meeting up with old friends and comrades or resuming association under a respected banner.

It is not uncommon, however, for those activists who oppose this established practice to attend a protest, leave the main body of protesters and take an action thought likely to cause some disruption or a confrontation with the police. This would lead perhaps to a fracas which could be characterised as state opposition to protest. There have been amusing outcomes as when the confrontation stops traffic and prevents law abiding protestors getting home from their protest.

During the campaign against water charges comments on social media began to make an interesting distinction between protest and effective protest. Typically a protester would be told by a Garda to stand aside from the installation of a water meter and to protest nearby. This they would see as pointless since the objective was to prevent the installation of water meters. Standing aside with a placard was not deemed effective protest. Effective protest is aimed at preventing something or perhaps causing something to happen, while protest as facilitated by An Garda is essentially communicative – protesting about something.

It might seem sensible at this point to tidy up the terminology but it’s not that simple. The inviting course would be to distinguish between protest – institutionalised as communication – and direct action. Here’s the problem: since the controversy is essentially about widening the definition and therefore acceptability of protest to include actions that are not exclusively communicative, creating a distinction right here between protest and action would prejudge the outcome of the discussion.

Peaceful” seems to present a complicating factor. Many protest actions are now accompanied by chanting “peaceful protest, peaceful protest”. The proposition would seem to be that any action that does not directly offer violence is legitimate protest and should be defended by the state.

As mentioned above, examination of the institution of protest was brought forward in Ireland by activists opposed to water charges and the installation of water meters. They actively tried to prevent the work being carried out by standing into earthworks, blocking roads to contractors and slow marching in front of contractors’ vehicles. Leaving aside the claimed justification of acting on behalf of the people, the proposition here is that preventing or delaying work is legitimate protest and should be defended by the state. It’s by no means a new proposition; environmental activists have occupied tree tops to prevent projects that involved the destruction of the trees. Blockades preventing workers or supplies reaching a disputed site are quite common.

While they sometimes lead to violent clashes when police try to keep a road open, the blockade or slow march is now increasingly accepted as legitimate protest. The activist gets to make an effective protest which prevents, say, work happening for a time. The state accepts that protest will cause delays but projects tend to completion in the longer term and it is recognised as necessary to dissipate anger and opposition. Occasional clashes between protesters and police are inevitable as an accommodation is achieved between two accepted rights: the right to protest and the right to go about lawful business without hindrance. The currency here is essentially time.

The activists involved in the Jobstown protest directed at a visit by the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) to an educational conferral proposed that preventing or disrupting the visit or preventing the Tánaiste and her assistant from leaving was legitimate protest. The Director of Public Prosecutions disagreed and some were charged with illegally detaining citizens. This outraged activists who saw it as undermining the institution of protest. Indeed, in closing argument a defence barrister argued that the prosecution was an intentional assault on effective protest. In doing so, he ridiculed conventional protest as both old fashioned and akin to Father Ted holding a banner inscribed with “down with this sort of thing”. *

Two distinct arguments have emerged. Firstly, it is argued that a blockade preventing entry is not the same as preventing a citizen from leaving.** As the charging of the Jobstown protestors indicates, the State is intolerant of protesters detaining a citizen but this intolerance does not sit easily with police facilitating the slow marching of workers on a contested project trying to go home. Indeed, at Jobstown the slow march home was apparently negotiated between police and protest leaders/managers as an accommodation which would end the protest.

Secondly, a strange new proposition was advanced by a defence barrister: that because one of the detained citizens was a government minister she could be detained in order to ensure that she listened to the views of the protestors. In other words, the freedom of the minister to walk away from communication was contested. Like the slow march this could be developed into a peaceful accommodation: that a citizen can be detained in order to ensure that they hear some viewpoint. Again the currency would be time.

Now clearly there’s a great deal of pretence going on. On the state’s side there is a pretence that protest leads to change. In Ireland where decisions are subject to the delivery/pressure system, protest is just one pressure among many; e.g. interest groups, non-government organisations, sympathetic journalism.

On the side of the activists there is an implied pretence that if the state recognised a range of actions as protest, they would support the state. The reality is that since the state has assimilated protest, something else has to happen if the state is to be confronted.

In other words, one side says that protest is a right, encouraged, recognised and protected; the other side says any limitation on direct action undermines the right to protest. The two sides simply are not talking about the same thing.

Let’s take both at their word: that the state really does approve and encourage dissent, and that the activists do not seek confrontation but want to extend legitimate action beyond marches and standing with placards.

As suggested above the currency is time, delay. Negotiations are already the order of the day. The proposition is that activists may do as they wish as long as they are not violent. In many cases this will work out fine. A blockade of some engineering project is very likely factored into costs. Workers delayed by slow marches can probably be compensated by overtime payments. An extended list of accommodations might suggest that this is easily resolved but switching attention to different more basic examples of rights clashing reveals something far more problematic.

Leaving aside all question of violence like attacking an individual at whom a protest might be aimed or breaking up property, the extension of legitimacy (state recognition and protection) to all activity labelled protest could cede rights to groups at the expense of citizens. This returns consideration to the nub of the matter.

Citizens tend to be content to have rights limited in order to ensure public safety but this necessarily involves threat. It would be quite another matter if, say, freedom of movement were denied indefinitely or for a considerable period in order to defend a right to protest. While the state now negotiates with protesters, an authoritarian paradox emerges.

Should the institution of protest be extended to include all actions that a group or individual was willing to claim to be a protest, then a group or individual could rely on the state to constrain others. Thus the word “protest” – never mind “peaceful protest” – would trump all other liberties. Clearly no state with the slightest pretence to being liberal could cede such power to anyone willing to take action.

Rather than worrying excessively about what might happen – what obscure or mad action might be adopted to oppress fellow citizens – it might be better to consider codifying protest actions that are regularly claimed to be so, for example:

i) There is now no dispute over the protest march. It is a recognised institution.

ii) The sit down protest in a public street is disputed. It will normally be respected/tolerated by the state until it inconveniences a large number of citizens or a smaller number for a protracted period. Business interests tend to intrude as shops fear disruption of trading or the creation of the impression that going into town is subject to disruption.

iii) Slow marching is now virtually recognised by the state as a useful way of ending confrontation while allowing activists to feel that they’ve been effective in at least causing delay.

Come on, though, let’s be frank. If activists are committed to opposing the state, none of this is relevant because they must devise actions such that the state will oppose them. The position would seem to be that while protest is quasi-constitutional and effective protest can be accommodated, the last thing that anti-state/anti-establishment activists want is to be part of an effective lightning conductor, discharging anger and resentment safely to earth, part of the management of dissent. Though they frequently say that they are no longer interested in revolution, they still cling to some undisclosed role for confrontation and crisis***.

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* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT9xuXQjxMM

** In answering irrelevant questions at the trial of Paul Murphy et al, witness, Karen O’Connell, made an interesting distinction. She suggested that while blocking citizen entry is “peaceful protest”, preventing a citizen from leaving is not.

*** It’s hard to imagine what non-revolutionary street politics is about. It seems to be a compromise between joining that strand of socialism which opts for reforms within the system (frequently mocked as social democracy) and a revolutionary style/tradition without the substance. In practice it sides with all popular movement/sentiment including that which is right wing. It views class in terms of polling categories rather than political values and seeks to represent those it views as working class by putting pressure on the government/establishment/political class. Thus class is reduced to a pressure group and activists termed “hard left” operate within the Irish cargo/pressure system of politics. 

Forget about whatever feelings or views you might have about the Labour TD and former minister, Alan Kelly, and read the part of Miriam Lord’s piece headed, “Lowry’s secret meeting sends Kelly off rails”.* The Irish Times published this on the same day (19/11/2016) that it ran an editorial on the term “post-truth politics”. The editorial was headed, “The truth will out”.**

Now, Miriam Lord is billed as a “colour writer”. What she does when writing about Alan Kelly is that she speculates, gossips. What she doesn’t do is present a shred of evidence. The fact that she admits that she has no evidence or rather that she flaunts her lack of evidence seems to be key to avoiding a charge of lying. That what she is writing about is relatively trivial may offer another excuse.

This political gossiping – making up stories – may also figure in discussions of an earlier fashionable term, “truthiness”. However, it suggests two things. Firstly, that the Irish Times is compromised if it chooses to take a line against fake news, truthiness, post truth or media lying. Secondly, that there is nothing new in the production of fake news. It is more plausible to suggest that it has recently dawned on real and dangerous chancers that the pillars of the media world produce made-up political gossip which some citizens like and/or believe. The chancers are not fools and they see that it makes commercial sense and attracts “political” advantage to go the whole hog and let “colour writers” loose to do their stuff.

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* https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/miriam-lord-on-military-manoeuvres-at-leinster-house-1.2874018

** Prompting thoughts of the X-Files!

 “A specially commissioned Irish Times poll in 2014 revealed most people had no idea the bulk of government spending went on social welfare payments, including pensions, and public service pay. Most people believed politicians’ pay accounted for more spending than either of these items.” – http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/stephen-collins-ireland-not-immune-to-virus-that-spawned-donald-trump-s-success-1.2747037

The media, according to the author of the article, Stephen Collins, must take some responsibility for this ignorance. He’s wrong. For once the media cannot be responsible. Ignorance – no, let’s be blunt, monumental stupidity – on this scale wasn’t caused by media. The survey result suggests a spectacular and basic failure in the Irish education system.

Regularly a citizen hears it said or reported in the media something along the lines of, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …” Average intelligence and slight education should prompt reaction, “Hang on, that can’t be true!”

Right, let’s admit intelligence for all. That means turning attention to education. It is unacceptable that the majority of respondents in a properly conducted survey are incapable of participation in a basic public controversy. That such mass incompetence has been found should prompt a rush to research in order to find the root of the failure.

Ok, let’s not over-react. It was one survey and its purpose was not to measure educational attainment, but it does accord with my experience as a lecturer, a consumer of media and a citizen who engages in casual conversation at bus stops.

Apart altogether from the concern that a significant number of citizens cannot participate in a public controversy, there should also be concern among those who view education as training for work. That is to say, there is little point in fussing over the proportion of students taking higher level maths in the Leaving Certificate or the general maths needs of industry, when it would seem that perhaps the majority have no grasp of numbers and quantity.

Returning to the degree of blame for public ignorance which journalists should bear, it may be that they are as much victims of a failure to educate as the citizens whose views they report. Consider the possibility that many journalists think it makes sense when someone says, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …”

Most of the debate on repealing the eighth amendment accepts the pro-life position. The difference between the two sides is this:

Pro-life – There is a person present from conception with a person’s right to life for however long that might be and regardless of the circumstances of conception, i.e. there are no exceptions.

Repeal – The circumstances of rape and fatal foetal abnormality are exceptional.

The two positions are engaged in debate over exceptions and are not essentially different. This is because the repeal side refuses to engage with the core pro-life argument, that a person is present from conception, and the media on whom public discourse depends are content to let this happen.

The pro-life argument is meta-physical but shouldn’t be dismissed for that. It is easily dealt with because it is a poor argument. Now, at least some of those who make the argument are used to being treated with an inordinate amount of respect because it is assumed that arguing metaphysics requires great expertise and is hard work. This is a carefully cultivated impression. It is also uniquely accepted, while every other branch of philosophy is expected when necessary to engage with citizens who have no particular expertise.

Once we address and consider the argument that a person is present from conception, and assuming we find it implausible (There won’t be universal agreement that it is.) we can begin to examine abortion from a moral perspective.

Here are two facts:

i) No one wants to permit abortion right up to birth.

ii) No one strives officiously to find and protect the lives of all fertilised human eggs (zygots).

The moral decision lies between i and ii. It involves both banning and allowing abortion in the public interest. It is a hard decision because it necessarily means a time limit. It is a debate that can and should go on and on as we struggle to do right, to fix a time limit that, all things considered, is moral.

There is no escaping this awful decision; it is part of the human condition. Well, there is one way of escaping: accept the pro-life argument. This is not to say that those who accept the argument are evading responsibility but it is to say that acceptance rules out having to consider what should be done about unwanted pregnancies.

Addressing the pro-life (ensoulment) argument moves pregnancy by rape and viability down the public agenda. It removes much of the heat from public discourse, and there are many – not all of them working in the media – who thrive on heat.

If activists and media are unwilling or if they feel themselves incompetent to debate metaphysics, let us hope that those who will make up the forthcoming citizen assembly are treated as thinking adults capable of going to the core of the issue.

Complaints that news coverage of terrorist attacks generally fails to give much idea of context – i.e. the longer history, the grievances, the circumstances that led to the bloodshed – are by and large justified and the complaints ensure that that particular context is at least mentioned. There is, however, another context which tends to be utterly ignored. Terrorist attacks exist not only in the context of their particular struggle but also in the context of terrorism itself – i.e. its history, the many organisations, their methods, successes and failures.

In order to appreciate concerns about the neglect of context, it is necessary to mention “framing”. News is a product created by media workers and all news stories are told within a frame chosen by those workers. They might decide to relate an event as good news or as bad news. An easy example would be the reporting of increased numbers of air travellers; this could be framed as good news for the tourist industry or it could be framed as bad news for the environment. News staff decide how it will be told, framed. Looking to the audience, the citizen who wants full information in order to form a considered viewpoint wants all frames, while the citizen with little interest in public affairs would like it kept simple.

Another choice when it comes to frames is whether to relate events as isolated episodes or as events in a much larger theme. In the early 1990s Shanto Iyengar argued that for the most part news stories are presented as unconnected events – episodes – rather than as incidents best understood in a longer process or theme. This, he argues, depoliticises them – prevents their being the subject of effective political controversy.* News reduces great controversies to a series of anecdotes, e.g. the likes of inequality might be reduced to isolated stories about poverty.

So too with the reporting of terrorism, the complaint is that it is reduced to stories of carnage ripped out of their political context, or – as Iyengar would put it – episodic framing is preferred to thematic framing. The citizen with little interest in politics is served at the expense of the thoughtful, participative citizen.

Journalists, presenters, researchers, editors, producers etc. are of course well aware of the choices to be made and sometimes decide to place events in context often in a longer special report or even a current affairs programme. Almost inevitably, the choice is to place the attack or series of attacks in the context of the struggle from which they emerged. While this is an enormous service to the thoughtful citizen – one which may have commercial consequences as less interested citizens tune out – something is still missing: that other neglected context of terrorist attacks.

When media staff decide to place current attacks in context, they usually opt again for a degree of isolation that limits political discussion. That is to say, a terrorist attack or campaign is seldom considered in the context of decades of similar attacks and campaigns mounted by different groups in different countries. Recent Jihadi attacks are treated as new and unprecedented when the reality is that they are part of a recurring and developing tradition stretching back decades into the twentieth century.

This is not the place to develop a history of terrorism. Suffice it to say that adequate consideration of the latest terrorist attack or campaign of attacks depends as much on understanding their commonality with earlier attacks and campaigns as it does on understanding their particular context. Putting it more plainly but provocatively, the context to Jihadi attacks on Western civilians includes the IRA and others.

This is where it gets controversial and where something akin to censorship appears. There are people – almost certainly the majority of people – who would regard such attacks on civilians as crimes against humanity and who would want perpetrators, commanders and facilitators hunted and brought before the courts. There are also people who are selective, who think that targeting civilians is sometimes justified. Now should anyone but especially a producer of media present jihadi atrocities in the context of earlier struggles, those selective citizens will go ape. They will demand a degree of censorship; they will demand that coverage of terrorist attacks never be framed in a context which includes the killings of which they approve. It would take brave journalism to defy them.

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* During the 1980s Shanto Iyengar analysed US coverage of socio-political issues – poverty, unemployment, crime – and found that news was biased towards events rather than their context. He labelled the difference “episodic framing” as opposed to “thematic framing”. The former reduced complex issues to anecdotes and hindered public understanding of controversial issues. (Shanto Iyengar, Is Anyone Responsible?: How Television Frames Political Issues, University Of Chicago Press, 1994)

At the heart of all the fretting over populism there is a dispute about the essential meaning of citizenship. Populism is often defended by reference to its root, populus, and presented as ordinary people taking control. The reality is that the last thing on earth that a supporter of populism wants is control over their own or the affairs of the republic; they are passive citizens. When thinking people complain of the lies and simplicities which fuel populist campaigns, they fail to appreciate that this content is not directed at them. They are irrelevant onlookers to a play for the support of fellow citizens who have a fundamentally different outlook. Crucially it is journalists who ensure that content reaches its intended target.

You see, one view of citizenship pays little or no heed to meaningful participation – to deliberation – and cedes thinking to an elite. Because adherents complain about elites (variously labelled the establishment, the government or the political class) a fake anti-authoritarian image can appear; in truth it is more like petulant but dependent children complaining about their parents. It is a view that reduces citizenship to a desire to be well managed or led by a patriarchy which the dependent, passive citizen hopes will be benign.* There is competition then for the support of these citizens.

Competition for the votes of such citizens is characterised by political communication which plays down, ignores or lies about risk. The most recent example is Brexit. Passive citizens were told that they could leave the EU without fear of adverse consequences. They could have been asked to assess the risks and decide on balance what would be best but that would not have served them. It would have made them unhappy and prompted cries for “leadership”.

The first Syriza election win in Greece was another example. Frightened citizens were told that everything would be fine, that they could be delivered unproblematically from austerity. It turns out that a whole swathe of the coalition that was Syriza was fully aware of the risks, were talking among themselves about the Drachma and an isolated fresh start but they stayed quiet rather than perturb the simplicity.

In Ireland we are burdened with the same authoritarian nonsense. When our entirely predictable property crash finally arrived, citizens who would prefer to be untroubled by risk assessment were offered a wide choice of potential parents. All said that there was an easy way out of austerity, that a country in desperate need of loans to pay welfare and state salaries could refuse to accept the conditions imposed by its one remaining lender and that there would be no adverse consequence.

It is difficult to imagine a political controversy which does not involve the consideration of consequences, of advantages for some and disadvantages for others. However, the idea that a controversy over matters as large as the above could be presented by anyone as having small or few consequences is not merely absurd. It is an authoritarian gambit.

The citizen who doesn’t want to be troubled with participation, argument, evaluation, judgement is a willing target for the authoritarian who will reassure, will relieve them of meaningful citizenship by offering leadership. This is the authoritarian who tells them not to worry, that nothing bad will happen, who talks in terms of being in touch with the people, who will likely even try to identify as anti-establishment. Crucially, complex argument and possible consequences will be dismissed as “scaremongering”, while expertise will be spurned as “establishment”.

Familiar? Of course it’s familiar; it’s the parody of political discourse that has become not merely acceptable but normal. If you are not a citizen in need of a leader but one who wants to participate in the affairs of the republic, wants to have all the information and arguments in order to discuss what matters before coming to your decision, you may wonder how the repeated lies and simplicities could gather supporters. You may even have a haughty disdain for your fellow citizens, questioning their intelligence. The reality is that many citizens seek soothing codology because they prefer a quiet life. Moreover, the populist leader knows this and has no intention of wasting time in addressing the republican citizen. Indeed, there is no need to do so because the number of passive citizens is sufficient for success at the polls and may constitute a majority, even a large majority

There’s nothing new about concern over citizen passivity. It has a track record from before J.S. Mill’s fear of the herd, through the Frankfurt Marxists, on even into music with Roger Waters *, inspired by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and on it goes. In short, it’s a staple in theorising about democracy and the nature of citizenship. **

Finally, where do journalists come into this? Well, they have a problem and a decision to make: they cannot at the same time serve the republican citizen while holding the passive citizen’s attention or serve the passive citizen without dismissing the needs of the republican citizen. Generally they stay out of trouble by covering everything in a fair, objective, impartial way and that’s one reason why public discourse and republican participation are threatened.

 

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* A note to leftists who might be tempted to lead populism: The citizen who wants to be patronised is working class only in the way that the term is used by pollsters.

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

*** http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/

Far too many in the Labour Party are behaving like football supporters whose team has fallen on hard times. They want to revitalise, fund raise, put new structures in place, re-establish rapport with the traditional fan base, put the club firmly under the control of ordinary members etc. The purpose being to return their team to at least a mid-table position in the Big League.

For a smaller group of members this won’t do. They didn’t join the Party to play the game; they wanted to change the game. They still see this as the Party’s very purpose.

 

The game and left conservatism

The Irish structure of wealth, inequality of income and privilege is secured by a vibrant, healthy, system of support. Perhaps uniquely the Irish system has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism which paradoxically allows anyone who so desires to pose as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment on behalf of “ordinary people”. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having governed for the greater part of the state’s history, can pose as anti-establishment.

The conservative mechanism operates firstly by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and secondly – more importantly, here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.

The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.

Political parties within this system tend not to offer a universal argument but vie to represent sectional interests, i.e. to be their voice against the establishment. Much of the left is more than implicated; it is comfortably part of the system. Class, if mentioned at all, is no longer concerned with values, revolution or even reform. The working class no longer has universal significance or a historic role. Having deserted a Marxist perspective in favour of accepting class as a polling category, leftists have reduced working class to a mere pressure group. The working-class as pressure group has interests which can be represented and left parties tussle to be their champion, to lead them in the competition to secure favours from variously the government, establishment or political class. Gino Kenny, a leftist T.D. (member of parliament) for Dublin Mid-West, went so far as to say that his role is that of a union shop steward representing his working class constituents in their dealings with the establishment.

 

The conservative path or the left path

Labour – especially in opposition – can join this and all the indications are that this is the intent; most members seem relieved and pleased to return to campaigning “on the ground”, representing “our natural” support base. Thus Labour can slot comfortably in among all of the other parties and seek to lead/represent groups seeking preferment.

In stark terms, Labour is thoughtlessly sauntering onto the inviting path to left conservatism, joining those who help maintain the structure of economic inequality by representing parts of it in pursuit of concessions.

There is a different path: become the one party of opposition in Ireland – opposition to the generally accepted structure of economic inequality and privilege. This will mean a break with Labour traditions because it will mean a stated intention to lower the height of the economic pyramid rather than defending the relative advantages of all but the distantly safe one percent.

On this path Labour would leave the club of parties who talk in terms of fairness. In contrast Labour would talk in terms of income, of reducing the shameful – no, ludicrous – gap between the minimum (or if preferred, the living or industrial) wage and the top 10%. All policy and reactions to current controversies would be formed with reference to the Party’s objective. Labour’s party spokespersons operating within their remit would know that the party had an overall objective and that their policy development and public comments were to serve it.

Moreover, any liberal or conservative party seeking Labour support in government or participation in coalition would know in advance that the price was measurable structural change.

Taking this path would mean unpopularity and withering attacks from the well off but it would also mean that all actions and statements had to be coherent and plausible – and this would change Irish politics for this reason: It’s essentially about leaving the passive approach to representation and addressing those citizens who demand to be truly republican, i.e. who are amenable to and wish to participate in argument.

Why then would anyone want to go in such a difficult direction? The answer is that there are people within the Party and in society generally who want not revolution but meaningful, measurable, visible change and who see no point in Labour at a crossroads deciding to march with everyone else.

The 2016 general election in Ireland saw the two largest political parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) share a combined vote of less than 50% and the Labour Party reduced to a small wounded cadre of seven parliamentarians. The conventional interpretation of this outcome is that there has been a leftward shift in overall Irish political sentiment which has made the Labour Party at best a mild left irrelevance and at worst a party of poseurs when compared to the emergent “real left”.

There is a possibility that the Labour Party in its weakened state will accept this established account and move simplistically to compete within rather than challenge the orthodox view. From a socialist perspective the problem with the orthodoxy is that increasingly the left in Ireland is implicated in a stable, conservative system of competing interest groups. It is important, therefore, that the Labour Party take time to think about the nature and complexity of this system with a view to confronting it rather than cutting a dash within it.

Despite their relatively small size a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left” or “socialist left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. When parliamentarians elected under the AAA/PBP* banner are asked if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern, the interviewer 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. Now, while there is no possibility that Labour will join their tradition or at this stage find that theory plausible, there is a real risk that a demoralised and tiny Labour Party will thoughtlessly emulate their activism.

The quagmire into which Labour could very easily disappear is made of “grass roots”, “traditional support base”, “founding principles”, “the people we represent”. “listening to our members” etc. To survive Labour must look hard at the tempting system which has so developed to protect privilege that it easily accommodates dissent, anti-establishment and traditional revolutionaries. To survive and more importantly to keep alive the socialist minority in Ireland Labour must decide to turn away from the community service which most members crave and instead address the Demos – the masses – though the rest of the left opt for competing pressure groups.

***

Perhaps uniquely Ireland has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism paradoxically seen as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having been in government for 61 of the past 84 years, can pose as anti-establishment. The mechanism operates by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and – more importantly here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.

The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.

***

Now, the left would reject this characterisation of establishment and anti-establishment. They would see themselves as real anti-establishment but they would make this point while they move further and further, and more prominently into the stabilising or conservative, anti-establishment mechanism. There are three linked features of this move which – though they have a familiar radical veneer – illustrate the extent of left conservatism.

i) Class reduced to mere interest group

Unfortunately it’s becoming rare to hear socialists mention class. This has lead to the term functioning merely as an affiliation signal. Credibility among some leftists depends on stating explicitly that society is class based but there is little requirement beyond using the word. The kind of Marxist analysis which sought to define working class by attributes and then to calculate possible numbers has been replaced by acceptance of the class categories used by pollsters. This has led to the neglect of working class values, abandonment of the universal significance of the working class and acceptance of the working class as no more than a relatively deprived social bracket, i.e. a large pressure group demanding concessions from the government, political class or establishment.

ii) Representing and defending communities

The increasing emphasis on marking out territory is a further drift away from a meaningful view of class. The notion of deprived housing estates in revolt, besieged by the establishment and in need of defence is attractive to activists and has recent roots in the experience of Northern Ireland where territories were marked out for defence by one side or the other. There is now competition to establish exclusive political leadership within geographic areas identified as “working class estates”. It is common for activists from other areas to move to “defend” these estates.

It is nonsense of course. These housing estates are long established, comprised of family homes and are an integral part of society. The notion that – because they are relatively deprived and troubled – they are attacked by the state and its workers, and are no-go areas for unapproved political canvassers and politicians is a gross imposition. Moreover, it is an authoritarian affront to residents to suggest that they need leadership, particularly from outsiders with a more privileged background.**

iii) Favouring the street over parliament

In theory and in sentiment the sight of workers marching and organising in defiance of capitalist rule and the oppressive state apparatus is vital to the revolutionary left. In theory they should be marching for something which cannot be conceded and thus hastening the final crisis of capitalism. In this view the determinants of change are people in the streets and not representatives in parliament whose role is the secondary one of agitating within the foremost institution of liberal democracy.

Because it is now so clearly implausible, understanding the sentimental attachment to this tradition is easier than understanding the endurance of its place in left theory. Senior police officers routinely say that the force not only accepts protest but will facilitate it and it is odd that this seldom prompts doubt among those committed to street protest. However, some leftists do see the problem and distinguish between protest and effective protest. The former has been institutionalised to the extent that it is now quasi constitutional. Its primary function is that of a lightning rod which runs dissent safely to earth. An older safety metaphor might be preferred: it let’s off steam. Its other function is to display numbers. That’s why after a protest march there is inevitably dispute over attendance; the larger the attendance, the greater the pressure for a concession. (RTE, the national broadcaster, now reports estimated attendances as rival claims and leaves citizens to judge numbers from the TV pictures.)

The latter – effective protest – in reality isn’t protest as conventionally understood. It is political action aimed at some immediate end, usually preventing something happening, e.g. installation of water meters or the holding of a meeting. In seeking publicity it clearly has a genuine communication component extending beyond the ritual chanting of “peaceful protest”. However, it is also clear that while thousands are prepared to attend a “respectable” march, only a small number involve themselves in “effective protest”. In short, the masses accept the quasi-constitutional protest but reject direct action.

From a socialist perspective these trends have little or no reformative – never mind transformative – value and are fatally unconvincing to potential supporters. The working class is properly characterised by – among other things – admirable and universal values, not support for concessions from rulers. Its reduction to an interest group to be served, patronised, organised or led is an affront to the citizens concerned and to socialism. Moreover, the citizen who is likely to support either a socialist alternative or a somewhat more equal society can see the yawning chasm between sectarian chanting and a plausible argument.

***

The Labour Party is in more than enough trouble now. It is vital for two reasons that it is not sucked deeper into the conservative system of issues, competing demands and policies determined by focus-group research into interests. Firstly, while they come from very different traditions, every other party is serving and supportive of that system and there’s not much point in Labour joining that competition. Secondly and more importantly, there is a role for Labour in opposing the conservative system of cargo politics and competing interest groups.

There is no way of knowing the electoral consequences of Labour making a break with tradition and directly disputing the views of the majority. Indeed, there are no data on what binds the relatively stable minority of people who vote Labour. This essay assumes a significant minority of citizens who are really – as opposed to apparently – opposed to the observable, established system and are well disposed to hearing a political argument rather than mere contending pleas for preferment – pleas addressed to rulers carelessly referred to as the government, the establishment or the political class.

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* The most prominent components of this alliance are the Socialist Workers Party marketed as People Before Profit and the old Militant Tendency relaunched as The Socialist Party after expulsion from The Labour Party. Its more complex alliances can be found here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_Before_Profit_Alliance

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Austerity_Alliance%E2%80%93People_Before_Profit

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/the-anti-austerity-alliance-and-people-before-profit-1.2520628

** Counter establishment

Ruling a working class estate reflects a history in Ireland that has had some success. The idea is to make the state illegitimate or powerless and to usurp its functions in serving the people. This is what Sinn Féin did during the War of Independence; while making areas ungovernable or taking control, they established a parliament and a law enforcement system. The approach reappeared in the Provisional SF/IRA campaign in Northern Ireland when the UK state ceased to function in quite a few areas (Security forces could enter only by force of arms.) and in the Republic when the role of An Garda was usurped in tackling drug dealers. It was in evidence again in the details of enquiries and kangaroo courts addressing sex abusers in the ranks of SF/IRA and in the alternative celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

 

 

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. **

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

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/conservative-journalism-and-the-victims-of-austerity/

 

 

A citizen has just one vote. The voter expresses preferences by using the ballot paper to instruct the returning officer as to what to do with that one vote. The number 1 says, “That’s my preferred candidate”. The number 2 says, “If my no. 1 cannot be elected or doesn’t need my vote, then give it to number 2.” And so it goes.

At every election some fool will argue that later preferences are to be opposed for fear of electing candidates a voter might oppose. That’s simply not true.

If a voter has expressed preferences for a small list of desired candidates and then has absolutely no preference as to which of the remaining are elected, then it makes sense to stop. However, the application of a little thought might reveal some preference as between the remaining candidates, e.g. a voter might prefer a woman over a man from the same party or a candidate who has expressed a mildly different view from the others remaining.

Moreover, if the voter really has no preference whatsoever between the remaining candidates and stops at, say, number 3, that voter has no further effect on the outcome either to oppose or to elect someone from the remaining candidates. They simply say to the returning officer, “I don’t care beyond my number 3. At that stage count me out.”

Say there are eighteen candidates. Sensible advice to the voter would be as follows. Give your 1st preference to the candidate you most want elected. Give the candidate you least want elected your number 18. Now list the remainder from 2 to 17. It might be hard to decide between some of your lower preferences but at least you can say that you prefer them more than number 18!

 

 

The strike action at Dublin Bus is more significant and more serious than most commentators seem to imagine. This is because it calls into question the quasi-constitutional understanding of industrial relations and the central role of trade unions within that.

Leaving aside the layers of rules and institutions developed over decades so that industrial relations can be orderly and manageable, there is a base and it is this: a trade union involved in strike action cannot be sued by the company for the recovery of strike-related losses. It’s old (It was formative in the birth of the Labour Party.) it’s been effective and it’s generally supported. There are two groups who dislike it. Firstly, there are free marketeers who argue that it is restrictive. Secondly, there are leftists who see that it institutionalises unions within a capitalist economy. They are both right.

In short, the state has privileged most strike actions so that strikes can be resolved while causing relatively little disruption to the wider social system. The privileged or legitimate strike action is one directed by workers and unions against their employers. If the action extends beyond that, the union no longer enjoys state protection. If there is a strike in support of something over which the employer has no control, the Union is no longer protected by statute and could be held liable for losses.

This is where the bus strike gets very serious. It is clearly a political strike and it has been made so by government policy in giving the Transport Authority control over bus routes. The bus workers want to maintain their conditions and pay, and have struck against their employer to prevent the privatisation of routes. Their employer of course is subject to the Transport Authority and certainly cannot control the pay of workers in private bus companies.

It’s not at all clear what the privatisation is meant to achieve. The Minister says that the tendering plan is aimed at creating “competitive tension in the market” and that this will in some unexplained way deliver “greater value” and “more choice for passengers”. Clearly this is a fine example of complete bollocks, no more than the mumbled prayer of a dogmatic advocate of markets. Journalism however shares the dogma; media interviews, in failing to make any challenge, are cementing a baseless belief into the wall of common sense.

What we have is the potential to place at risk a developed and trusted system of industrial relations so that there will be “competitive tension” in public transport. The risk is real because according to reports the bus company is seriously considering suing the unions for losses. Now, those who want no connection between the state and unions would rejoice in awarding damages to the company but the rest of us who rely on good industrial relations practice do not want to lose a century of progress.

This confrontation must be avoided. This means refusing to listen to clichés about returning to negotiations. The workers and management within the company cannot negotiate a solution. The solution lies elsewhere in a public discussion of “competitive tension” and in the event that the term is not only meaningful but demonstrably and greatly advantageous, then the state must move to institute pay rates and conditions (a registered employment agreement) across the public transport industry. Again, a confrontation which jeopardises the very basis of industrial relations must be avoided.

The activists who organise resistance to the installation of water meters regularly put forward a contentious proposition in the media but journalists/presenters seldom – perhaps never – challenge them.

They contend that work within, passage through or policing of a housing estate requires the consent of the community. It’s a familiar concept in Northern Ireland but is new to this part of Ireland. Moreover, “community consent” is determined by activists not all of whom live in the particular community.

The model put forward is of communities under siege from something akin to an occupying force and dependent on cadres which know what’s best and will protect them. It is a model which has simply no relevance to Ireland today.

The protesters mount a token blockade to prevent water meter installers’ trucks gaining access and then they obstruct the installation of meters. They offer little resistance, however, and allow the Gardaí to push them aside. Given the small numbers of protesters and Gardaí, it might seem odd to treat this seriously. It may, however, be a growing phenomenon, beginning to border on dangerous. There are already activists who regard a residential area as their territory and will attempt to drive off rivals and those who belong to the political parties who generally support the state.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as the actions of fantasists in thrall to anti-state struggles which occurred and still occur in Northern Ireland but there is a component to this which reflects badly and damages the credibility of the left. It too attracts the fantasist but of a slightly different kind. Unfortunately it has roots in Marxism and makes Marx appear ridiculous at a time when his work should be relevant.

There is a tendency particularly among Marxists with middle class origins to both misunderstand working class and romanticise anything that seems popular. When, therefore, a significant number of people take up a position, there is an assumption that they are progressive as long as they can be labelled “ordinary working people”, that they need to be led and if they are opposing the state, so much the better. At its most benign this draws some leftists into the routine form of Irish populism. However, the romance of involvement in something that looks a bit like revolt draws them close to and into competition with the fantasists mentioned earlier, those who want to do battle with the state.

All in all, the notion that the Irish people are at war with their own state needs to be questioned and discussed publicly in Irish media. It is an abandonment of public service merely to report on or give coverage to a proposition so contentious. It is an abandonment too of citizens who do not think they are opponents of the Irish state.

My long-time friend, Eamon Tuffy, socialist and former county cllr, reminded me recently that it’s no longer clear if South Dublin County Council has a county manager. That post now seems to be Chief Executive.* It might be argued that this makes no difference. However, it is certain that the change was discussed and decided upon. In other words, there are reasons.

The change was, moreover, not done in isolation. There are now “Directors of …” and the council is adamant that it will redefine citizens as customers.

What we are witnessing is our local county council taking part in much wider phenomenon: corporatisation. **

Too many local politicians want to be community workers and to avoid bringing politics into … well, politics – and they’ll try to convince themselves that words don’t matter.*** Words do matter and these changes will appear over and over in media in order to drive home their acceptability and the acceptability of the political changes they reflect.
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* http://www.sdcc.ie/the-council/about-us/management-team
** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporatization
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/if-the-county-council-is-not-a-little-parliament-what-is-it/

Had today been April 1st I would have smiled and remarked, “Good one!” RTE news this morning had an item about controlling dog shit on beaches in Clare.* The council there has spent money to install a system which will talk to the owners of the offending animals. If you think that’s nuts, the truth is more bizarre. As the interview progressed it emerged that this had little to do with dog shit and more to do with reminding people to obey the byelaws. **

It works like this. When a dog and owner approach any one of a number of detectors on the promenade, an audio announcement is triggered.*** It was when the interviewer asked a crucial question that the true madness began to emerge. He asked how the detector could distinguish between a person with a dog and a person without a dog. It can’t. It is triggered by all. The next question was obvious. He asked if this meant that people without dogs would be subjected to a dog-shit announcement. The reply was beyond Orwell. In order not to annoy those without a dog the message is tailored as a general reminder of and encouragement to obey the bye-laws. It is to be “a positive message”.

What it amounts to is this. In order to gain public acceptance of intrusive bullshit-announcements imposed on citizens out for a stroll, the initiative has been smeared in the familiar preoccupation with dog shit.

This could be dismissed as a laughing matter but it is evidence of something quite serious. It is clearly misuse of public money and an intrusion into the lives of citizens. However, it is an example of something more serious. It brings public service into disrepute. It is very common now to hear people complain about having to pay for non-existent or poor services for which there is little or no demand. The complaint is that public service – or at least some parts of it – has become an elite imposition with its own particular values, aesthetic and perspective on citizenship and that it is willing and able to impose.

As a retired public servant and a socialist, I might be expected to defend public service and that’s precisely what I’m doing. Public service should preserve and expand the freedom of citizens. It certainly shouldn’t annoy them and bind them up in petty controls and intrusions. Socialist policy relies on public provision. Socialists cannot allow the concept to be undermined to the extent that all progressive policy is likely to be resisted as an encroachment by the nanny state. Socialists must do something which seems counter-intuitive: they must resist nanny – send her and her supporters packing. Very many ordinary people see public service and the state generally as an opponent to be fought. Socialists should realise that far too often it IS oppressive and usually on petty matters.
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* http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A20621087%3A48%3A23%2D07%2D2014%3A

** Here’s the Irish Examiner failing to identify the bullshit: http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/siren-to-tackle-dog-fouling-on-beaches-276324.html

*** Promenades – even crowded ones – don’t have to be like this. The Irish seem to be particularly intolerant. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/thinking-about-the-promenade-at-monte-estoril-and-irish-lack-of-freedom/

I couldn’t say that I know Kenneth Egan, the Olympic boxing silver medallist, but I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and I’ve heard him on radio and TV. He’s a decent man who would like to give something back to boxing and to his hometown. When I heard that he intended to be a Fine Gael candidate in the 2014 local government elections, I knew that the smart asses would attempt to flitter him. They did.

He was characterised at worst as a fool and at best as naïve, knowing nothing about politics. Well, he’s certainly not a fool. He readily admits that he knows little about politics and that he’s with Fine Gael because they were first to ask him.

Kenneth Egan was open and honest about his intentions. He wanted to do community work. He reckoned that being on the Council would facilitate this. He was elected.

A cursory reading of the 2014 local election material – leaflets and posters – reveals that he was not at all unusual. Local election material was of two familiar – almost ritualistic – types. Firstly, there were lies that national controversies like property and water taxes could be resolved at local level, and futile Labour/FG efforts to counteract the lies. A variation on the lie was that the County Council was irrelevant and that the election was a method of sending a message to national government. Secondly, there was canvassing to secure employment/recognition as a community worker. Completely absent from the election material was any suggestion that the council would be an assembly which would debate politically, a chamber in which local issues would be addressed from the standpoints of competing ideologies and political values.

A consideration of the role of lies and indirect messaging in election campaigns and how mass media encourage or at least facilitate them will have to wait for another day. Here the intention will be to consider the election of community workers to local government.

At first glance politics and community work are quite distinct and it is tempting to view the routine approach to local elections as a misunderstanding or even as a kind of corrupt populism but it might be better to treat it more seriously. There are two possibilities: 1. that candidates believe local government to be non-political; and 2. that the community-work approach reflects a political perspective to rival, say, both liberalism and socialism. Let’s look at the two possibilities in turn.

1. Belief that local government is non-political has its equivalent on the national scale where clientelism thrives. Here candidates compete to provide some sort of service while trying to avoid anything divisive, like a political argument or an overall political perspective. There is a view that a national interest exists which supersedes all divisions including the entire structure of economic inequality. Many people dispute this view and it is particularly rejected by the left. However, its equivalent in local government goes largely unchallenged. Leftists seem to be as committed to the notion of “the community” or “local people” as anyone else.

After the recent 2014 local elections Labour councillors formed a second coalition with Sinn Fein and others to govern South Dublin County. A party member objected on Facebook to involvement with SF. The last part of a Labour councillor’s reply is revealing, “In local government, the people are the focus. My community is what matters to me.”

It is true that power has been shifted to the county manager. It is also true that it is difficult to identify particular council votes that split along ideological lines. The problem is this: If the council is not a battleground of political values, then it has little function. That is to say, if it manages by reliance on a shared view, then it is no more than a supervisory management board and it could or should be replaced by a smaller board or even by an individual. The small board or individual could be charged with being the community’s representative to counterbalance the career managers. Whether or not election is necessary to choosing the counterbalance will be put to one side for consideration another day but the point is that if the council is not riven by political values, there is no reason to continue with its present quasi-parliamentary form when something a great deal smaller would suffice.

2. There is a danger that commentators and political scientists will fail to take the community-work approach seriously, that they will refuse to consider it as a political perspective – a complex, functional, conservative whole, very suited to maintaining privilege in today’s conditions.

A Fine Gael TD (MP) of my acquaintance – a very decent, hard-working person – argues that ideologies are divisive and unnecessary. He sees his election to the Dáil (parliament) as voter recognition for the years of hard work he put in as a county councillor. In other words, voters promoted him to a higher grade. He takes his role as public representative seriously but it is a role which many would dispute or indeed decry. He attends meetings, holds advice clinics etc. He is, to use the familiar term, “active on the ground”. His activity has a purpose: it is how he establishes what his constituents want. Once he’s established that they want something, his role is to do what he can to help them get it. He will write letters/e-mails, attend and speak at public meetings, lead deputations to government ministers or to senior managers in state services or companies. He uses his status and influence to apply pressure for the delivery of some local demand. He might operate similarly on behalf of a family or an individual provided it did not contradict what the community generally wanted. This is his political perspective; this is politics for him. He is aware of course that many criticise him on the basis that all of his activity is about nothing more than ingratiating himself with voters in order to be re-elected. He agrees that his activity “on the ground” is necessary to re-election but he also enjoys doing it, sees it as his function as an elected representative and supports the whole as a sensible, working political system. He is not in the least odd; he’s mainstream.

This is an old, conservative perspective perhaps best understood as the Fianna Fáil tradition of constituency service. They insinuated themselves into each and every locality and organisation and developed a reputation for “getting things done” or “delivering” and indeed bizarrely for being anti-establishment. Leftists behave no differently but they tend to have a different rationale for precisely the same activity. Leftists tend to be in thrall to “working people”, “ordinary people” or increasingly seldom, “the working class”. Like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, leftists sincerely want to advance popular demands but they also want to lead “working people” who are viewed as essentially progressive.

I know quite a few Labour county councillors. They are thoughtful and acutely aware of inequality and the class-divided nature of Irish society. They live to change that society by way of gradual reform, i.e. the parliamentary route. They realise that there is little or no conflict over political values at council level and that they must do community work. Some have ambitions to be elected to the Dáil and see the county council as a stepping stone. Again like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, they work “on the ground” hoping that voters will promote them. They are aware too that promotion to the Dáil will not mean elevation to a realm of political conflict with a constant clash of political values because re-election will to a great extent depend on that same work “on the ground”. There is no easy escape because not only is that the established way of things but the vast majority of electors shares the political view expressed by my Fine Gael acquaintance. Some voters, candidates and elected representatives may adopt a bogus anti-establishment swagger by talking in terms of the “political class” being pressured by “working people” but it amounts to the same stable conservatism: politics reduced to getting facilities or services for one group of citizens/constituents at the expense of others. Community work – together with protest, agitation and pressure – has become part of the management of dissent, a way of avoiding differences over political values.*

It is very different at party meetings. At times a meeting can inhabit another world, a world in which class, oppression, equality, legitimacy, power and their likes have real currency. Here’s the thing: A prospective council candidate seeking support at a Labour convention or – I presume – any other left party’s convention simply could not say that socialism was irrelevant and that they were putting themselves forward as an excellent community worker. The tradition (It may be a myth at this stage.) has to be maintained that community work, leading protests, etc. are directed towards socialism or at least a more equal society. The thought that they might be directed towards maintaining the system would be unbearable for most socialists.**

There is little point in suggesting or debating reforms at this stage. That is to say, there’s not much point in talking about elected county managers or elected supervisory boards because the overwhelming majority – including most of those who would see themselves as anti-establishment – support the system. There is a more basic argument to be addressed first. The republican approach which would include both liberalism and socialism views democracy as a matter of citizen participation in debates about the direction of the republic. It’s a tiny minority viewpoint. Given the forces opposed, it could be termed deeply unfashionable or even eccentric but it is old, basic, democratic and worthy of support.

Yes, council elections are for the most part about appointing/ recognising community workers. Voting for community workers or local-delivery agitators – even when they belong to ideological parties – is at best mildly democratic but in any republican sense might better be seen as counter-democratic.

It would seem time to recognise that a county or a city council is not a little parliament and making an explicit difference between the two might help to revitalise citizenship and push parliament back towards its neglected deliberative role.

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* This is not the place to consider the possibility of a post-political age.

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/

Here’s a tiny example of a journalist supporting an orthodox position: “Of course, licence-fee funded broadcasters are rightfully subject to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …” – Laura Slattery, Media and Marketing in The Irish Times, April 3rd 2014 *
The notion that income paid out of public funds should be subject to greater questioning is today a belief of the majority. I would argue that one role of the journalist is to prise open majority beliefs. Instead Laura decided to reinforce twice by inserting “of course” and “rightfully”.

Among other options, she could have said:
“Unfortunately, licence-fee funded broadcasters are rightfully subject to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …”
or
“Unfortunately, licence-fee funded broadcasters are alone at present subjected to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …”

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/media-and-marketing/bottomless-pockets-can-lure-more-presenters-from-rt%C3%A9-1.1747361

It’s no wonder that market liberalism is almost unquestioned in Ireland. Liberals know how to use state power and institutions. Socialists in government need to watch them and see how it’s done.

Have a look at this: “The National Competitiveness Council was established by Government in 1997. It reports to the Taoiseach on key competitiveness issues facing the Irish economy and offers recommendations on policy actions required to enhance Ireland’s competitive position.” – http://www.competitiveness.ie/aboutus/

The establishment of a state council has institutionalised competitiveness as a permanent objective of government.There’s a lesson to be learned: The establishment of a state council is a way to institutionalise X as a permanent objective of government.

The Labour Party is now in Government lumbered with political argument from a state council for competitiveness. If the left is capable of learning how to use the state, this is what we need to see before this government leaves office:

“The National Council for the Reduction of Inequality of Income was established by Government in 2015. It reports to the Taoiseach on key issues causing economic inequality in the Irish economy and offers recommendations on policy actions required to reduce inequality of income in Ireland.”

On the recent resignation of an elected politician from the Labour Party, a number of aggrieved party members raised the point that before becoming a Labour candidate an aspirant must sign a pledge to resign the seat should they decide to leave the Party. Now, I’ve never known this to happen.

Usually the politician leaving the Party claims to have moved to a position on higher moral ground than that occupied by the party or claims that he or she has not changed but that the Party has fallen away from previous or traditional standards. Another approach is to say that the decision of the public at the election carries greater democratic weight and neutralises any mere personal or party pledge. A variation on this is to look forward to the next election and say that success will legitimate all.

The truth is that the Party pledge has become meaningless. It cannot be enforced and hardly anyone grants it a moral force. I even recall the chair of a selection convention joking about the pointlessness of the pledge as a candidate was singing. We too readily accept the term, “empty gesture”, as if no harm is done when the truth is that all these false pledges and signatures amount to a nasty tangle of cynicism.

I have argued for taking seriously again the notion of integrity.* Now, candidates signing pledges for a laugh in front of knowing members is hardly an important issue today but it may be a significant cut as integrity in public life is whittled away. Moreover, many will dismiss the very notion of integrity as unimportant either because their view of politics is cynical or because we face far greater issues.

Let’s set down some testing points in relation to pledges and personal integrity. Firstly, I doubt that many citizens would want as a public representative someone for whom a formal pledge freely given is meaningless. Secondly, I doubt that many citizens would be impressed if told that at a party’s selection conferences a cynical charade is played out time after time as election candidates pretend to enter into a pledge. Thirdly, I regret the number of times I’ve been present and bitten my tongue rather than speaking up while the demeaning charade went ahead. I accept that this is entrenched, unenforceable and that there’s little an individual can do but I’ve resolved that if present in future I will try to force at least a discussion when a candidate is “invited” to sign the party pledge.

In short, when it comes to resignation pledges, election candidates should not make fools of themselves, their party colleagues and citizens generally by acting falsely.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/from-the-cardinal-to-the-chancers-its-time-to-make-integrity-important/

I was talking to a T.D.* recently, a leftist one. He said that his basic function was to serve his constituents and that if he is re-elected to the Dáil, it will justify his political decisions. I disagreed, saying that his was a perfect statement of populism. The function of a leftist is neither to schmooze nor to patronise but to argue honestly and plausibly.

Now, Ireland is a society in which the overwhelming majority is comprised of liberals, conservatives and believers in the infantile notion that the “political class” is the ruling class. In this society honest and plausible argument would seem the road to electoral failure because it means opposing and possibly offending that overwhelming majority. That is why leftist parties seeking electoral success employ researchers who i) try to keep policy and statements in line with those of a majority or ii) try to be both vague and appealing to those receptive to facile slogans.

It’s a real dilemma: how to get elected while opposing (trying to persuade) the majority? The situation is made worse by a realisation that slogans and implausibility will drive away the thoughtful voter.

The good news in Ireland is that the leftist doesn’t have to appeal to the majority or convince a majority in order to win. In Ireland we have PR-STV ** and election can be achieved by way of a minority vote. This offers the freedom to argue, to oppose consensus, to offend, to break icons but it’s far from an easy option. It’s difficult and lonely to decide to be unpopular. It is however the only way for a leftist to win on a leftist platform in Ireland.

There are of course implications for participation in coalition government but that’s work for another day.
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* Teachta Dála, a member of the Irish parliament.
** Proportional Representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote.

Reaction to Russell Brand’s manifesto in New Statesman* has been almost exclusively of three types: supportive, dismissive, or patronising. Because the level of support for his position is so large the dismissive and patronising reactions will not do. What is needed is engagement with his perspective. It needs to be examined and subjected to the level of critique due to all public arguments.

New Statesman is attracting a great deal of criticism for publishing Russell Brand (RB) and allowing him to edit an entire edition. This is not deserved because the journal has performed a service in giving this political perspective space, respect and above all attention. The political perspective offered by RB is not at all uncommon. It would appear to be shared by at least a significant minority of people and possibly by a majority. It is the perspective which dominates mass media and social media. That it has been expressed by Russell Brand should neither increase nor decrease its importance.

His presentation of the position goes something like this.

He builds a case for casting aside the whole Westminster model including representative democracy. The starting point is “most people” and the observations that they don’t give a fuck about politics, view all parties and politicians as the same and hold them in equal contempt. He reckons that all political “agencies” are irredeemably and totally corrupted by big business. The conclusion is that “the current paradigm” should be renounced.

He holds a particular contempt for the Conservative Party and the smaller more extreme right wing parties but contempt for their opponents is only marginally less. Paradoxically for someone with such strong anti-state/anti-politics (ASAP) views, he has a positive attitude to leftist values, and leftist figures and achievements of the past.

He lists very real inequalities, poverty, deprivation and exclusions from decent living. Things are so bad and reform so impossible that only a revolution will do, a spiritual revolution. Now, he is not alone in using “spiritual” in relation to revolution; Rosa Luxemburg, the late 19th – early 20th century Marxist philosopher, does so too. However, he is quite explicit that the revolution is not about the overthrow and replacement of institutions and that “spiritual” refers to individual rather than collective change and to some kind of conversion rather than persuasion by argument.

He holds that media, public relations and polling combine to delude the people, keeping them apathetic rather than angry.

There are problems with all of this but first it is necessary to deal with those who would patronise him and those who share his views. RB has defenders on the left who appreciate the publicity he has given to the scale of the problems we face and to some of the issues that they too might prioritise. Moreover, they may share his view of the importance and wisdom of “most people”. They say that because he is not a politician, practiced in argument or particularly well-educated or informed, he cannot be expected to offer any solution or be subjected to analysis. Now, RB himself tries to exploit this (Indeed, he invites patronising admiration.) by saying that because he knows so little, little can be expected of him. In this position and that of his supporters who seek to patronise him there is acceptance of elite authority – a reliance on one’s betters (Yes, very likely the same betters already rejected as complicit in the problems.) to devise a solution. It is a rejection of the ordinary citizen’s involvement in great debates. It is a rejection of the notion that anyone may express a view in public and when they do, they invite criticism and counter argument. The patronising of RB’s views is an example of a modern form of censorship in which, “everyone is entitled to an opinion” has come to imply that a speaker’s opinion should not be questioned. It is tolerance turned on its head and made to mean the opposite. RB’s views deserve the respect of being challenged, particularly so because those views are commonplace, shared by so many people.

The overriding problem with the perspective now associated with RB is that it is for the greater part right wing. There are three important overlapping right wing perspectives which dominate. Firstly, though it might seem daft at first sight to associate RB with right wing dogma – given his apparent hostility to the establishment and in the UK to the Conservative Party – he is embracing an old and familiar approach to citizenship. Opposition to the state, and rejection of ideologies and of traditional forms and accepted norms for public debate signal opposition to the republican or participative model of citizenship. This is a model with which most leftists would identify and support. He opts instead for a variation on the liberal model of citizenship which cares little who is in charge or what is done as long as a level of comfort is guaranteed.** It should be admitted and then emphasised that a level of comfort is increasingly denied to many, many people and they are sorely, justifiably aggrieved.

Secondly, the ASAP thrust is meat and drink to those whose views can be loosely identified with the highly individualistic Freeman movement. Because of its anti-state, anti-tax, pro-property and standing-up-for-the-little-guy approach this is particularly attractive right now. In Ireland its largely bogus attempts to prevent debtors’ property – especially houses and lands – being seized are proving attractive because so many people in debt are in need of some relieving faith.*** These same characteristics give it credibility at protests and either confuse leftists or tempt them to turn a blind eye to the reality of a political perspective which in other circumstances they would oppose.†

Thirdly, it is plain that “New Age” thinking or what is frequently termed Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS) approaches are central. Indeed, for the edition of New Statesman which RB guest-edited he invited Deepak Chopra – among others – to write a short piece about revolution. Moreover, he talks admiringly of “sacred knowledge” in various pantheistic myths and seems to think that these myths were killed off because they were “socialist, egalitarian and integrated”. Clearly he believes at least some of the huge range of MBS doctrines. He may also realise the importance and influence of the New Age/spiritual/MBS constituency among his supporters. It is this that provides the quickest line of retreat from ordinary understanding of revolution into the radically individualist notion of a spiritual revolution.

It is worth returning to his view that the media are to blame for deluding the people. He may well be right but the delusion supports rather than hinders his perspective. To be fair to RB, it is true that journalists are generally loud in their condemnation of rioting and violent protesters and that they seek out examples in order to make a largely peaceful demonstration newsworthy. It is also true that what little analysis of disorder there is takes place months later in documentaries aimed at a small, more thoughtful audience. However, for decades the media have been deriding both politicians and politics,†† presenting an overall view that is remarkably similar to that of RB and – significantly – to that of the majority of citizens. It may be very hard for many of those accustomed to condemning the “mainstream media” to grasp the extent to which routine media output supports the denigration of politics, the acceptance of an elite political class, the reduction of the citizen to supplicant seeking favours, and the rejection of a demos in favour of minorities competing for resources at each other’s expense.††† It is a view which is incompatible with leftist thinking but many leftists decline to tackle it and instead either make common cause with its adherents, attempt to lead it or patronise it by asking no questions.‡

RB has performed a service in underlining the extent to which there are problems beyond the competence of any one state. The world, organised in competing states and federations and pinning almost all hope of a better life for citizens on economic growth, faces an existential threat in Global Warming. Moreover, within and across developed states there is a refusal to face two looming issues. Firstly, not only are there more people now but they are living much longer. The very idea of a pension rests on the assumption of employment until 65 and death soon after. That is plainly not how things are. Secondly, almost all policy assumes that a good society has full employment in decent jobs. The enormous productivity wrought by technology means that plainly this too is not how things are.

Russell Brand and the huge numbers who think similarly are disappointing not only because they are right wingers under their socialist fleece but in rejecting reform in favour of a vague hope they bring to mind a hoary old joke told too many times in Ireland:

A tourist stops and asks a local for directions to be told, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here at all.”

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/russell-brand-on-revolution
** http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/
*** http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/lawyers-advise-against-use-of-groups-claiming-secret-formula-to-circumvent-law-1.1396641
̾† http://freemanireland.ning.com/
†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/08/23/the-politicians-one-way-that-journalists-limit-debate-in-the-republic/
̾†̾†̾† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/rulers-peasants-journalists-and-activists-a-note-on-vincent-brownes-piece-marking-rousseaus-300th-birthday/