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There’s a reason I want to tell you about my experience teaching at a drug rehabilitation clinic but first the story:

Some years ago the then head of UCD’s Adult Education Dept. asked me if I’d be interested in presenting a lecture series to recovering drug addicts. Now generally I do politics with an emphasis on political philosophy and specifically I do political communication. I asked what he had in mind. He said the request was for a politics course and that was as much information as he had. I jumped at the chance of a new experience while doing – I hoped – some good. 

My first day was alarming. I was welcomed into an environment that I found very stressful. It wasn’t that I was scared. Far from it, the people there were nice to me. It was the chaos; I could find nothing familiar and dependable. It was the world of addiction. However, up a few flights of stairs and I was introduced to the students. Here there was no chaos but a group of people, recovered from whatever had been their problem and focused on making their futures.A short time into the course it became obvious that their primary interest was theory. Sure, they wanted to know basics about how elections worked, how the Taoiseach was elected and what was the function of the president but that was too easy for them. They were far more interested in hearing about equality, justice, democracy etc. I was fascinated and motivated by them; they were sharp.

The course progressed well and as I got to know them, we exchanged personal stories but there was one question I wanted to ask and my opportunity eventually arrived. I asked why was I there, talking to them about politics, what had prompted such a course in this clinic. The answer was fundamental and affecting. They had looked at the list of likely courses facing them – the “practical” courses – and said, no thanks. They wanted what they called “real subjects”. They had argued their case but believed their success came down to a succinct claim to normality. It had been put bluntly by one woman to a centre manager, “I said to her, ‘Look, we’re junkies, not fucking eejits’ and she said OK, that she’d organise proper courses.”

They did get real subjects and proper courses. They were well able for them, enjoyed them and did well.

Here’s where I reveal the purpose of telling this story now but I’ll return to the students and something that will always bother me.

When I’m told that “ordinary voters” or “ordinary working people” don’t want “intellectual argument” and want only “practical answers”, I wish the patronising, elite chancers who assume such nonsense, would be challenged by the likes of that student saying, “Look, we’re citizens, not fucking eejits.”

Of course there are citizens – millions of them – who don’t want political debate, intellectual material, ideologies, values etc. Some really don’t understand, some pretend not to and may even try to flaunt ignorance as a virtue, some are culpably uninformed, and most simply don’t want to be bothered.

On the other side are republicans (real ones – unlike US Republicans or Irish nationalists) who want to participate in the affairs of their republic, who demand to be addressed with respect and who want to think, talk and come to decisions. In this they don’t need leadership.

So, there is a divide in society between, let’s call them, passive and active citizens but that division does not break along class lines. Let no one say that ordinary people or ordinary working people – never mind the working class – are on one side and cannot cope with real politics. *

Ending the clinic story, I taught two groups, as far as I can recall, at the clinic in successive years and then it all stopped. I assume there was a change in management or in the programme itself. Here’s what bothers me. Those students were clever and wanted to continue with “real subjects” but there was nothing for them when they parted with the clinic. I pointed them towards university Access courses, in particular UCD Access on which I teach but I never saw them again. I’m left with the thought that a door was opened, giving them a glimpse of higher education, and then was slammed shut again. Sometimes that seems more cruel than forcing them to do “ordinary” training courses.

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* Here’s some more on this divide: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

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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/

The rise of Fianna Fáil in opinion polls has come as a great shock to some. If comments on Facebook are any indication, the people who now favour FF have at best lost their memories and at worst have gone mad. The revival of FF, however, is neither mad nor surprising but entirely understandable and predictable.

Firstly, the overwhelming majority of those voters who abandoned FF at the last election most certainly did not act because they had been persuaded to change their political views. They abandoned FF because FF had provided extraordinarily poor management and FG was offering better management. (The Labour Party was quite similar, offering better management but with a more caring approach.)

Without encroaching very far into the realm of theory, it is clear that a citizen who believes that we live in a post-political age and that elections are about choosing managers, would be acting sensibly in supporting FF as soon as the worst managers had been purged. This – together with portraying the FG/Labour government as poor managers – is what has happened.

Secondly, the overriding political perspective offered by the media eases the rehabilitation of management under the FF brand. While this perspective can be viewed as a variation on the managerial or post-political approach, at the very least the two are perfectly compatible. The dominant media perspective sees the political system in terms of a “political class” ruling over supplicants and groups who seek concessions.* A citizen who adopts this perspective might compare the present government with FF’s record and conclude that FF had granted more or better concessions in the past.
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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/conservative-journalism-and-the-victims-of-austerity/