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During the weeks of the campaign on the proposal to remove the 8th admendment from the Irish constitution, journalists and programme producers – especially at RTE – time and again selected Mary Lou McDonald, President of Sinn Féin, to make the case for repeal. She did it very well and I agree with what she had to say. There was nothing exceptional in the content of her remarks and any number of people could have been chosen to make them. There are reasons why she seemed an obvious choice. It was fitting that a woman make the case and it added to the attraction that she’s well known, articulate, smart and the leader of the third largest party in the Oireachtas. A far more important consideration was, however, ignored when selecting her for such prominence.

The very deliberate level of favourable exposure radically unbalanced coverage of our most fraught public controversy. She and her party want it accepted, made normal, that the military campaign of the Provisional IRA be commemorated and celebrated like other violent parts of our history. While holding this view, she nevertheless wants to be accepted as a reasonable, decent person and a tolerable contributor to all manner of public debates. In this she and her party are routinely facilitated by docile editorial decisions, apparently unconcerned that in other countries something so vile would be supported only by pariahs.

Many countries – perhaps all countries – honour their freedom fighters and their war heroes. Given that terrible things happen in war – war crimes – they tend to be ashamed of such incidents and to accentuate heroism and bravery. If the Provo IRA’s campaign had been a war of liberation with rare or even occasional lapses into war crimes, Ireland could follow that pattern of commemoration.

That is not possible because that IRA campaign was largely composed of war crimes. All combatants choose targets. When they choose civilian targets, they commit an unambiguous war crime. When the IRA eschewed military targets and chose to beat and shoot civilians, and routinely bomb public places, they embarked on a deliberate campaign of war crimes.

That is all over now and everyone wants to put it behind them. Well, everyone except Sinn Fein. They want to make war crimes respectable, a normal part of our history, to be celebrated and commemorated rather than recognised as a depraved episode and a stain upon the nation.

The struggle to make war crimes a normal part of Irish history includes presenting its devotees as normal, decent people. This needs to be stood on its head. Regarding war criminals and a campaign of war crimes in this perverse way is incompatible with being a normal, decent person, someone to be admitted to civilised society and called upon to comment on our controversies.

This, however, is what Irish media routinely do and RTE, the national broadcaster, seems to display an enthusiasm for it. Moreover, the struggle to normalise is a matter of public controversy and RTE’s unnecessary recourse to SF speakers displays partiality in a controversy whose opposing sides are decency and barbarism.

It is neither sensible nor acceptable to facilitate one side in a controversy by pretending that other controversies are unconnected.

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* I’ve discussed similar before. These might be of interest:

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/journalism-and-the-struggle-to-decide-what-is-normal-the-case-of-sfs-desire-to-celebrate-the-prov-ira/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/the-division-between-supporters-of-sf-and-other-irish-people-is-and-ought-to-be-fundamental/

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Populism is not another word for democracy. It is, however, a word for a crude kind of majoritarianism which the market-oriented right finds very attractive. Unfortunately those leftists who have abandoned universal aims and class politics feel a similar attraction.

Concern over democracy descending into a crude head count is certainly not new. Since the development of mass democracy there has been a consistent fear of what a majority might do, possibly harming a minority or overriding individual rights which have been progressively established. There are two responses to the fear. One is to limit democracy. The other is to enhance democracy by accentuating its usually ignored feature, deliberation.

And there’s the jump-off point for today’s concerns over populism. The will to democratise has always rested on a belief that citizens will be informed, thoughtful and deliberative, that they will participate in the affairs of their republic not merely as volunteers, community activists and the like or as self-interested members of pressure groups but as people who will talk, argue and participate in public discourse.

Of course no democrat could ever have been confident that all citizens would be participants. There would always be those who would opt out, having no active interest in the direction of the republic, no interest in politics, or who would be excluded, lacking resources of income, leisure, education or ability.

This then gives the most basic division in a republic between, let’s call them, passive citizens and participative citizens. The latter want public discourse, the former want leadership, simplicity and promises. Both can vote.*

It has long been possible – perhaps even necessary – to be elected by offering services, goods, promises or even a focus for anger to citizens who have no participative interest. What has dawned in recent years is a full realization of the size and political potential of passive citizens. These are citizens who don’t want to hear and discuss contending arguments but who want reassurance and deliverance. They want leadership and there are leaders and parties with simplicities who are anxious to compete for their support, populist leaders. Again, it’s not new but it has been growing for two reasons. Firstly, potential leaders have increasingly sought out data about what people want to hear so that they can patronise rather than convince voters. Secondly, passive citizens – previously content – have lost faith in a political system which they thought catered to them at least adequately.

The fear now is that meaningful democracy will be reduced further in the direction of crude majoritarianism. Before looking at how passive citizens lost their faith, it would be sensible to set down the characteristics of populism. Nowadays they are all too familiar.

Populism: its familiar features

There is an essential belief that society is composed of two antagonistic but internally homogeneous sections:

a) The “establishment”, undifferentiated but including the rich, business, banks, media, elected politicians, state officials intellectuals and experts;

and b) The “ordinary people” who are more wise and virtuous than the “corrupt establishment”.

Populists have an uncomplicated approach to democracy. They seek strong and charismatic leaders who will reflect the will of the people. They also like direct and majoritarian democracy, favouring referenda and plebiscites over representative democracy whose checks and balances might give undue attention to minorities and thwart the will of the majority.

They are strongly nostalgic, looking back to what they consider better, simpler times both economically and culturally, when industrial employment gave a basic prosperity and the prospect of inter-generational improvement, and before cosmopolitan values, multiculturalism, “political correctness” and feminism made life less certain. This can lead to expressions of support for isolated nationalism and for crude misogyny to the point of foul-mouthed sexism.

The passive citizen’s loss of faith

There is no point in pretending otherwise, things have changed for very many people who are passive/disengaged but who were formerly more or less content. Their employment is gone, their expectations are undermined, their understanding of family, gender, community and race now seems incongruent. And yet, it is clear to them that others are flourishing in the new circumstances. They feel as though they’ve been left behind and are in need of rescue, restoration, deliverance, a leader, even something familiar in which they can have faith.

When this is theorised there tends to be two approaches. One talks about economic insecurity, emphasising the low pay consequences of declining industrial production and the attendant increase in unskilled and semi-skilled work which rarely leads to promotion. **

The second talks about a cultural backlash, an objection to the progressive value changes and increased migration that were concomitant with the loss of industrial jobs.

Austerity and the decline of the left

The rise of populism is frequently contrasted with the decline of Socialism, social democracy and Labourism. The conventional argument is that people are angry over left involvement in business and especially in the defensive cuts to pay and welfare (austerity) thought necessary to stabilising – even, saving – the capitalist system.

It is true that for the greater part of the 20th century socialists were complicit in a deal with capitalism which saw the system encouraged and promoted in return for relatively good pay, conditions and systems of welfare. It is equally true that right wing as well as left wing elements were deeply unhappy with this arrangement. Right wing dissent took the form of neo-liberalism which wanted a reduced role for the state and an increasing resort to markets, especially labour markets. Left wing dissent saw participation in the management of capitalism as a sell-out. They claimed a monopoly on the term, socialism, while social democracy became a term of abuse applied to socialists who operated within representative democracy.

The early 21st century economic crash was a happy day for both sets of dissenters; clearly the deal they hated could no longer deliver. Worse, the establishment – including socialists – moved to save or stabilise the system by rescuing banks, investors and industry, and cutting wages and welfare provisions.

At this point, according to conventional argument, people were no longer convinced that those who ran the deal and did well out of the deal – the establishment – would protect them, and they turned to alternative leaders who offered deliverance.

The flaw in this conventional argument is located at that word, “convinced”. The thing is that when considering populism it is a mistake to think in terms of a Demos comprised of thinking citizens who no longer hold with the argument behind the 20th century deal, who no longer agree with what has been termed social democracy. Rather, it is more accurate to think in terms of passive people who were never convinced of anything.

The truth is in a range of criticism appearing over the greater part of the 20th century which was concerned with citizen abandonment of appraisal, analysis, discussion and judgement, i.e. participation. That old fear of mass society crackles across the thoughts of democrats from Marxist alienation, through the “descent into a vast triviality” to just at the birth of the web, “The Culture of Contentment”. Then a decade and a half later there’s Barack Obama, “… in politics and in life ignorance is not a virtue”. Now it’s opposition to populism but it’s the same old fear: democracy stripped of citizen deliberation. Democracy reduced to brutal majoritarianism. ***

Leaders of the passive

The right will seek power by trying to manipulate passive citizens. A revolutionary left could try the same. A left which has, however, abandoned revolution but wants to lead the masses faces a dilemma: oppose right wing demands even when expressed by “ordinary workers” and lose their support or agree with them and go over to the other side. ****

What to do?

Democrats – as opposed to majoritarians – know that without deliberation the whole point of the democratic project/tradition is lost. It would be undesirable – as well as unlikely – that liberals, socialists and some conservatives elide their differences and come together but as democrats they must always be aware that populism is a common foe. To be blunt, political controversy whether arguing individual freedom, equality or class conflict is part of the establishment that is now threatened.***** Fortunately, there remain citizens who are amenable to argument. They must be addressed. They must be encouraged to speak up, to participate as they wish. No democrat should ever patronise passive citizens; that’s partly what led to this crisis for democracy.


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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602869/manufacturing-jobs-arent-coming-back/

***

On alienation and later: https://aeon.co/essays/in-the-1950s-everybody-cool-was-a-little-alienated-what-changed

descent into a vast triviality.” Neil Postman (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death, p.6

https://quote.ucsd.edu/childhood/files/2013/05/postman-amusing.pdf

Contentment sets aside that which, in the longer view, disturbs contentment; it holds firmly to the thought that the long run may never come.” – J.K. Galbraith (1993) The Culture of Contentment, p.173

John Waters, Amused to Death, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

Barack Obama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjGUUGw0pQ8

**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/the-conservative-embrace-a-home-for-former-revolutionaries/

***** Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.

An aspect of the rise and break-up of the Syriza administration remains largely unexamined: Syriza was an experiment in left unity. The proposition was that if all leftists united behind an agreed programme, a left government could be elected. Leaving aside the need to enter into coalition with a right wing, anti-austerity party, the unity approach seemed to deliver. However, Greece is now in worse shape than when Syriza and its right wing partners came to power and Syriza has split. This outcome was predictable, if not downright inevitable. There were two related flaws from the outset. Firstly, there was the untruth (a clumsy term but it covers belief, lie and fantasy) that a government could end austerity without negative consequences and secondly, there was the belief among leftists that unity could encompass those who were essentially uncompromising. It was clear from the outset that an end to “austerity” could not be achieved and because compromise would be out of the question for components of the alliance, it was to be expected that Syriza would split.

Syriza sought election by offering to confront Greece’s lenders and secure deliverance from onerous bail-out conditions. So far, so populist and citizens voted for it in numbers sufficient to make Syriza the largest party in parliament. The rest of the Syriza election programme seems to have been virtually ignored.

Shortly after the government was formed a different tune was heard and there were reasons to be optimistic. Confrontation was out; deals and compromise were in. The time seemed to be right for Greece to assume leadership of the growing support for a more Keynesian Europe.

It has never been fully explained how the optimism too quickly drained away in acrimony. Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was insistent that Greece wanted to pay her debts and yet the descent into nationalism and simple anti-austerity “principle” happened.* These months reversed a modest economic recovery and pushed reform of European fiscal policy off the agenda. Then after the farcical referendum and the subsequent bailout deal the chasm between left reform and left revolt became impossible to ignore.

That chasm is a problem on the left and it cannot be papered over; it makes left unity impossible. In recent decades most leftists have abandoned revolution in any meaningful sense of the word but they’ve also worked to keep their distance from what they deride as mere social democracy. In refusing to join with the century-old tradition of those socialists who work on reforms through the parliamentary structures of the liberal state, they create the paradox of wanting revolutionary change without a revolution.

The tendency to underestimate that refusal to cross to the other side of the Marxist tradition is at the root of left unity wishful thinking.

In Greece the ironically named Popular Unity has walked off to oppose Syriza. Their aim remains to end austerity by taking Greece out of the deal with creditors. They exhibit, however, what might be termed revolutionary honesty because they now talk of leaving the Euro if necessary and of rebuilding the country.

The Greek experiment with Left Unity may have done lasting damage to the very idea of Left government in that the economy was damaged without producing any real change and without pushing through left reforms.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/its-not-plausible-that-the-publicly-expressed-argument-of-yanis-varoufakis-caused-this-crisis/

Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein posted the following on Facebook and in a few hours, i.e. by midday on April 1st 2015, it had been shared over a thousand times.

“There was some mention earlier on that the Taoiseach and the Fine Gael/Labour government want to rewrite the Proclamation as we head towards 2016.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic belongs to the people of Ireland. No government, not least the current government, has any right to alter or rewrite it.” – https://www.facebook.com/MaryLouMcDonaldTD/photos/a.498206116331.275763.58340031331/10152707553836332/?type=1&theater

Clearly it is ridiculous to suggest that a document produced a century ago could be rewritten. Three things, however, need to be said. Firstly, it is important that no document be elevated to the status of sacred text to be placed beyond examination and criticism. In the case of the 1916 proclamation its opening lines for example about Ireland summoning her children to her flag are incompatible with citizenship of a republic. Summoning children is more deeply daft and offensive than the UK monarchic tradition of referring to citizens as subjects.

Secondly, MLMcD is taking the familiar authoritarian line of speaking for the people. To say that the wording of a text belongs to the people of Ireland is meaningless other than in reference to the constitution where that ownership involves not stiffened preservation but vesting the power to change the text in a referendum. While the claim that the 1916 proclamation belongs to the people is meaningless, the devious intention behind the claim is not. This is an incident in a longer power play. It is a device that has been used many times. The trick is to put matters beyond discussion, to create blinding loyalty, respect and willing obedience. A person or group is to be insinuated as the true representative of the people and/or interpreter of special texts in opposition to an elected government, parliament or indeed the entire constitutional state. It is profoundly undemocratic relying on a perverse understanding of “the people”.

Thirdly, if the Taoiseach or anyone else wants to open a discussion on some sort of Proclamation for a New Republic, then let a debate begin. However, it must be emphasised that the discussion is essentially about choosing between contested political values. To be effective it will be a fraught discussion because Ireland is unused to contests over values, setting priorities and limits, and marking behaviour and beliefs as unacceptable – with the intention of change from time to time.

The most popular post-referendum view seems to be that the result foiled an attempted constitutional “power grab”. The sudden decision by the Taoiseach to abolish the Seanad was nothing of the sort.It was Enda together with his advisers looking at a fast growing political constituency in Ireland and thinking, “We could attract them. Look at them: they despise politics, politicians and the state, they’d love the idea of an attack on all three and we could easily market senate abolition as just that.” * Given that survey data suggest that “savings” was the most common reason for voting Yes, Enda and co. may have been relatively successful in wooing that ASAP (Anti-state/anti-politics) constituency. That the outcome was rejection of the proposal may be due less to support for a reformed senate and more to do with a bizarre consistency among ASAP voters, many of whom – as DDI advocate – will vote against anything proposed by the government. In other words the referendum split the ASAP vote between a Yes side which confirmed the Taoiseach’s analysis and delighted in the prospect of fewer politicians, and a No side which would prefer to line up what they see as the elite rather than be on the same side as the government.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/the-taoiseach-intends-to-sacrifice-the-seanad-to-feed-the-growing-anti-politics-constituency/

I was never in favour of abolishing the Seanad. My reasons were to do with mass political communication which many would dismiss with one of censorship’s favourite labels: “academic”. Now, however, there is a more pressing reason to vote No.

I won’t go on too much about the communication aspect but some explanation is required. My interest is political communication and the information – i.e. data and argument – that a citizen requires to participate in public controversies. One of the requirements is access to a range of viewpoints. The Seanad wasn’t designed with this in mind but in its design there was a suggestion of comprehensive debate, something rare and something that could be altered to do the job.

Election to the Seanad is by way of some universities and by way of industrial panels – agriculture, labour and the like. Commentators have pointed to the quality of Seanad speakers delivered by the universities but also to the exclusion of any particular industrial component to the panel elections which came to be dominated by routine inter party competition. There have also been nominations by Taoisigh which sought to recruit particular perspectives. In summary, the Seanad is designed for the most part to institutionalise and deliver sectional perspectives but this simply hasn’t happened.

Had it happened, it would not have been a great success for political communication – or rather for the kind of political communication which the republican or participative citizen needs. It is corporatist thinking. The assumption is that all political debate is based on self-interest and competition for resources. It is the traditional Fianna Fáil way and has become the standard media perspective in Ireland. It has indeed an appealing democratic veneer. Its notion of representation is that voices must be heard from regions, classes, industries, NGOs, lobbies etc. The problem of course is that they may all be saying the same thing: “Me! No, me! No, no, me, me!” This is an intensely conservative position which can often give the appearance of radicalism as when a bit of extra resources for a “deserving” group is championed.

It could be different. Think about this as a specification to be handed to the designers of a new Seanad: It is required that the Seanad reflect not the interests of select groups but that it publicly and fully thrash out all issues on which it deliberates. In summary my long standing position on the Seanad is that it has a promising design which needs to be changed.

Enough of that. We are facing a referendum to abolish the Seanad. The reason we are facing this now has nothing whatsoever to do with arguments put forward over the years that the Seanad is elitist, undemocratic or unnecessary. No, this is happening because the Taoiseach and his advisors can see clearly that there is a growing, right wing, anti-state, anti-politics constituency and he has decided to feed it by sacrificing the Seanad. The cusp of competition for political support now is this large group (There’s no knowing its size yet.) of angry people. It is certainly odd that FG which prides itself on defending democracy should now be prompted in this direction. With the exception of revolutionaries seeking a crisis which might be exploited, the desire among leftists to attach to – even to lead – such people borders on incomprehensible. It seems to be based on a belief that anyone or group opposing austerity and willing to take part in protest is progressive – even socialist. In other words, the very people that might be expected to stand in the way of a populist move to the right are competing to lead it.

Two things remain to be addressed. Firstly, a no vote might be equally attractive to a member of the anti-state/anti politics (ASAP) grouping; “no” would be a rejection of a government proposal. However, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the No side canvassing support on this basis.

Secondly, ASAP may be nothing of consequence. My concern with it grew slowly. I watched Occupy and spoke to some of its adherents. I attended anti-property tax meetings. I live an ordinary social life and take part in conversations. On this anecdotal level ASAP gives cause for concern in terms of what they say, the aggressive stance taken and their numbers. There’s more, however. Published polling data shows firm support for right wing parties, that parties seek ASAP support suggests the existence of data that make that course worthwhile and the utter dominance of the ASAP perspective in the media all combine to support a case for treating ASAP very seriously.

The Taoiseach has reduced this referendum to a question of for or against cutting the number of politicians. That proposal is close to the hearts of the ASAP people. In these particular circumstances people who have been in favour of abolishing the Seanad for other reasons should consider voting No. A Yes gives encouragement to an extremely individualist brand of politics and many of those that I’ve heard advocating abolition of the Seanad over the years certainly don’t belong on that side.

In an interesting coincidence two articles in Opinion and Analysis in the Irish Times of March 10th share a common failing. They fail to recognise that journalists have a responsibility to facilitate a citizen who is trying or even willing to reflect on a public controversy.

The articles by Stephen Collins* (“What this next referendum is really all about”) and John Gibbons** (Shadow of a doubt: how they fooled us about a killer habit”) correctly blame tricksters for debasing public controversy but they neglect to extend the blame to those who publish the lies, flak, scare stories, doubts – call them what you will. The bizarre claims of opponents of EU integration and the bogus science presented to fool people into doubting the dangers of first smoking and then global warming, depended on compliant journalism. Naomi Oreskes, whom John Gibbons mentions, describes how well-organised bodies use the existing conventions and rules of journalism to undermine public understanding. She is spot on and unless Irish journalists choose to elevate truth above balance, the upcoming treaty debate will become a familiar circus.

* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0310/1224313107126.html

** http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0310/1224313107142.html

 

There is a report by Fiona Gartland in the Irish Times of Oct. 24th  that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution intend to reconsider the question of balance in broadcast coverage of referendum debates. It is long past time that the privileged status of this communication value was questioned.

 

It is certainly not the case that balance is without merit but its limitations and the risk of exalting it above other values has become apparent.

 

When there is a clear choice between two courses of action and where there are sensible arguments on both sides, balance is a treasure. Unfortunately this is seldom the case and balance – crudely understood – becomes a problem.

 

Very often there are many points of view. Balance implies just two.

 

Crude attempts to quantify balance by – for example – linking it to the number of TDs supporting an argument makes sense only if one believes that broadcast debate should reflect the existing consensus in society or the most widely held views. Balance can be evaluated quite differently if one believes that broadcast debate should serve the engaged citizen, someone who wants a lively challenge. In this view balance might be between the majority view and a minority view, between opposites, between antagonistic views or between consensus and innovation.

 

Coverage of the Lisbon Treaty debate showed how balance could be the enemy of truth. Nonsense was repeated day after day to create balance and newsworthy conflict.

 

Balance is important and worth defending as part of a parcel of communication values which should include at least truth and the promotion of challenging viewpoints.