We The Citizens, Respecting The State, Using Democracy Wisely

‘The most unpleasant part of political science is the stool analysis’

There is no ‘we, the citizens’, OK?

Kathy Sheridan had an article in Saturday’s Irish Times looking at possibilities for public action in light of the ‘fiasco’ surrounding Irish Water. Consider ‘fiasco’. It carries no suggestion of malign or untoward intent on the part of those responsible. It carries no suggestion of a conflict of interest between the political forces who initiated and promoted the project on the one hand, and those who have organised and vocally demonstrated against it in their hundreds of thousands on the other.

Kathy Sheridan locates the origin of the fiasco (also, the ‘shambles’) well within the corridors of power, in the relationship between Government Ministers and civil servants. In this secluded world, the ‘public interest’ can be jeopardised by a need for a minister to look good, and a consultant who writes lots of articles about the public sector tells us of a ‘cultural soup of complacency’ in which ‘a fish does not recognise the water it swims in’.

The idea that the public interest might be jeopardised by, for example, the financial sector, or the occasional Maltese billionaire who has bought the rights to press freedom, seems to have passed Kathy Sheridan.

Sheridan claims Ireland is not a ‘mature democracy’, and yet claims at the same time that ‘we have had democracy longer than almost any other country in Europe’. So: either democracy is a load of shit or Ireland is really bad at it. Which is it?

Do you have maturity antennae, reader? Do your senses tingle when someone tells you that ‘we’ have to be more ‘mature’ about things? Where does all that stuff came from?

One possibility is the authoritarianism contained in the conventional family unit. The Catholic Church, for one, was very much into promoting the patriarchal authority of the father, and also respect and fear and awe for one’s parents. Here the family unit was God’s last bastion against communism, which hungry priests saw as a threat to their dinner.

Then there is the whole colonial experience, where the colonial power infantilises the subject population and the colonial subjects in turn internalise the colonial lens through which they are observed and treated. Like when Rudyard Kipling and a collaborator wrote of Ireland that:

Ireland never went to school and has been a spoilt child ever since; the most charming of children, indeed, full of beautiful laughter and tender tears, full of poetry and valour, but incapable of ruling herself, and impatient of all rule by others.

Kipling was also worried about

the oppression of the well-to-do and intelligent classes of Irishmen, who are certainly loyal to the British Crown’ by these spoilt children.

All this was in his textbook for children.

Luckily in post-Independence Ireland the spectre of children haunting Ireland vanished. Well, assuming you leave aside the reformatories and Industrial schools. And the Magdalene laundries. And the widespread corporal punishment.

Though Kathy Sheridan says that ‘we’ have had ‘democracy longer than almost any country in Europe’, she has nothing to say about the quality of that democracy. She has nothing to say about whether the people subjected to Ireland’s regime of coercive confinement form part of this ‘we’; nothing to say about how they in some meaningful sense ‘had’ this democracy; nothing about the role played by the Catholic Church in frustrating democratic aspirations, nothing about censorship.

All of these things blight the image that Ireland’s establishment projects of an enduring democracy of unimpeachable legitimacy. None of this is important, however, in weighing up the deficiencies of the present. ‘We’, she writes, ‘have never respected the State’. But the reasons why people do not respect the State are of no import.

Instead, she relies upon a speech by political scientist Peter Mair to the MacGill Summer School.

[Mair’s] analysis spared no one. The defence of being a “new” country doesn’t wash; we have had democracy longer and in a more sustained fashion than almost any other country in Europe. We are the also best-represented voters in Europe.

So whose fault was it ? “We, the citizens, did this,” he said.

Mair was an astute political scientist and there’s plenty of truth to the overall assessment given in the speech. However the idea that it was ‘we, the citizens’ needs questioning.

Who forms part of this “we”? Who is left out? There are around half a million people living in the Irish Republic who do not have the formal status of Irish citizen. This “we” hardly includes them. Thus they can be excluded from political life.

How does such a “we” account for power relations in the past, or in the present? Such a “we” effaces class conflict, and so “we” is effectively you and me –assuming you’re Irish of course- and Denis O’Brien and Dermot Desmond and some other people, all in this together.

Sheridan seems to think that being the “best-represented voters in Europe” is an unalloyed good thing. Well, yes. This is because we live in a society where representation is equated with democracy and where holding dissenting political opinions frequently meets with the rejoinder that you should stand for election if you think your views matter so much.

But believe it or not, the fact that I am represented by not one, but rather three TDs from neoliberal parties, would not be seen universally as a good thing. (I should stress that the solution here does not come from being represented by only one TD from a neoliberal party).

We have little no critique of representation in Ireland. Parliamentary elections -and the intrigues and machinations in the interim- are seen as the alpha and omega of politics.

Helen Keller once wrote:

They tell us, like so many children, that our safety lies in voting for them. They toss us crumbs of concession to make us believe that they are working in their interest. Then they exploit the resources of the nation not for us but for the interests which they represent and uphold.

In Ireland and elsewhere, Helen Keller is remembered for how she overcame deafblindness to communicate as a fully active member of society. But not, alas, for what she actually said.

The media resources that go into preventing simple insights such as this from taking hold among are immense.

Sheridan says that ‘we have to begin by recognising the root of our problems’. I agree. It’s just that the author directs our gaze away from social antagonism -‘this is about something more profound than harnessing protests against unpopular taxes’- and into a technical explanation that takes no account of the economic system –capitalism- and its power relations. The technical explanation means asking a management consultant and a political scientist. As if technocracy will get you to the root of things.

‘We’, Sheridan writes, echoing Mair, ‘have never respected the State’. But the reasons why this ‘we’ have never shown it any respect are seldom explored in public debate, and they are ignored in this article.

What kind of respect are we talking about here anyway? Is it respect for institutions that guarantee universal health care and education and operate in the pursuit of democratic equality? Or is it respect borne of fear for the State’s repressive apparatus, a respect for authority that has to be beaten into people?

Let me give a couple of trivial examples. If I see two Gardaí eating in a restaurant and I tweet a remark to the effect that the men in question are eating ‘pork burritos’, I will be met with a shower of criticism, since it is by and large unacceptable to refer to the police as pigs. If I decide to grow a beard to raise money for a charity effort to raise awareness about some nebulous aspect of men’s health, I will not only be met with plenty of friendly approval but I may also be supported by my employer. My employer may even grow a handlebar moustache himself. But if I were to grow a moustache as part of a campaign to stop cuts to the health service….

I should also point that respect for institutions that guarantee universal rights to things such as health care, education, housing and social welfare is continually undermined by the media establishment that includes the Irish Times, since a substantial portion of its revenue stream comes from advertising private health care, private education, private housing developments, the banking and pensions industries, and so on.

But simultaneously, the same media establishment, of which the Irish Times is part, is eternally and unfailingly respectful towards the same Rule of Law used to privatise and expropriate public wealth, and views policies to that end as unquestionably legitimate since they are enacted by a sovereign government, even when they plunge large numbers of people into poverty and deprivation and keep them there.

This, too, is ‘respecting the State’, and it equally entails respect for the swindle of representative democracy and for the surrender of popular power, a respect encapsulated in the question Kathy Sheridan asks in another article: To whom do we entrust this precious new politics of ours? ‘Respecting the State’, by these lights, means abolishing your own ability to take part in political decisions. Because you, citizen or not, cannot really be trusted. Spoilt children like you are incapable of ruling yourselves.