A brief note on courage

July 6, 2015

Since Ireland’s pro-austerity Fine Gael/Labour coalition came to power in 2011, it has prided itself on having the courage to take tough decisions. It supporters in the media (which is to say, the media) have adopted the refrain with the dreary gusto of a monastery at prayer. Variations on the theme rattle off the presses and ooze from the airwaves, as commentators gush over the government’s capacity to inflict suffering with impunity. Editorials drip with pious warnings against the dangers of yielding to populism, and the entire commentariat has taken up residence in a parallel Ireland, wherein the bitter medicine of austerity has effected a miracle cure.

Over the past four years, the ruling elite has attempted to mould reality to the contours of its simplistic Thatcherite morality tales. Having failed, it has simply declared reality altered by decree. Unemployment figures are trumpeted as though mass emigration and the herding of citizens onto free labour schemes never happened. Ministers crow about protecting social welfare rates even as they accept plaudits for slashing them to ribbons.

The Labour Party has taken particular pride in its willingness to ravage and curtail the lives of those who traditionally form its core vote. Emboldened by praise from big business and the media, there appears no natural limit to the party’s inexorable drift towards the furthest fringes of the European right. The party contains committed ideological extremists such as leader Joan Burton, but the majority of its parliamentary contingent are simply vacuous automatons, random assemblages of molecules with just enough coherence to vote through a benefit cut. For all that, their calculated viciousness should not be underestimated, excused or forgotten; malice is often little more than stupidity run to seed.

And yet still, from the government benches and the newsrooms, comes the shrill, aggrieved demand that these architects of social catastrophe should be applauded for their courage. The distinction between tactical ignorance and outright delusion has long ceased to be meaningful in Irish politics, but a brief primer on the nature of courage seems to be in order here.

A basic prerequisite for any act of courage is the element of sacrifice or personal risk. There is nothing courageous about an extremely well-paid politician severing the financial lifeline of a single parent (unless you’re a believer in the immortality of the soul). That is not a “tough decision” for anyone except the victim. There is no bravery and no honour in skewering the poor, the sick, the elderly and the helpless when you have the ardent support of the wealthy, the powerful, the entire media and every financial and governmental institution in Europe, with the full repressive might of the police and the judiciary standing by, ready and willing to come down like a ton of bricks on the merest flicker of resistance.

It takes no courage to deprive a disabled child of vital supports if, should it cost you your seat, there is another one waiting for you behind the desk of a grateful multinational. None of that is courage, and no amount of ideological alchemy can ever turn it into courage. It is the opposite of courage, the most abject and contemptible cowardice.

By contrast, the decision of Greek voters to defy explicit, well-grounded threats from every locus of unearned power in Europe was an exemplary act of courage. It will not go unpunished by a vindictive European elite, and will be condemned as irresponsible by those who rattle their drums on behalf of the big battalions. But listen closely to their sneers and their scorn, because you might just detect a note of terror.

Green Cat, No Mice: Right2Water on the Brink

June 11, 2015

Before proceeding, I want to conduct a brief thought experiment. It should prove instructive if taken in good faith – bear in mind that the results are between you, your conscience and your CIA case officer.

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You’re loitering on the fringes of a political rally, convened at short notice to protest the latest outrage perpetrated by the state/the church/the E.U., or some combination thereof. It’s raining, obviously, and the speakers are uninspired, but turnout is respectable and not confined to the usual suspects; another sign, perhaps, that the world is tilting subtly in the right direction.

The final speaker concludes; staccato applause ripples through the crowd as you turn to leave. A loose ring of paper-sellers and leafleters has formed around the perimeter of the rally, like history’s friendliest NKVD blocking unit. Some reflex of politesse and curiosity (morbid or otherwise) compels you to accept a flyer.

At the bus-stop, whilst fumbling for change, you pull the crumpled leaflet from your pocket and scan it hurriedly. It’s a People Before Profit production; Richard Boyd Barrett glares from the page with a boyish earnestness which makes you ashamed of your secret defeatism.

You flip it over. The headline reads A People’s Government Now! It goes on to plead the case for a left-majority government after the 2016 election, composed of an as-yet unformed political party backed by unnamed parliamentary allies, pursuing undefined goals. It concludes by condemning all those who refuse to clamber aboard this magical mystery tour as self-interested wreckers and parasites. It is, in short, the most stereotypically old-school SWP document ever produced.

Hit pause right there, take note of your instant, heartfelt, instinctual response, and hold that thought for the next 1500 words.

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It is fondly imagined in some quarters – Leinster House, Montrose, certain scenic parts of Malta – that the anti-water charges movement has ground to a terminal halt. While the movement does face an existential crisis, it does so because the stakes, of victory and defeat, have risen precipitously in recent months.

In one sense, the ferocity of the battle is testament to the success of coalition strategy since 2011. Its tactic of focusing fire on isolated segments of society (the elderly, the unemployed, student nurses, lone parents) has inflicted defeat upon crushing defeat, clothing the government in a demoralising air of invincibility.

Elites are often at their most vindictive in the ascendant; throughout recent Irish history, weak and sporadic resistance has been countered with massively disproportionate repression. Despite the usual protestations of tied hands and Troika diktats, the government chose its battleground carefully in picking a fight over water charges.

An earlier attempt to impose water charges on Dublin was defeated in the 1990s, and the exemplary power of that struggle has haunted the Irish ruling class ever since; this is a common response amongst anti-democratic regimes, who often feel pathologically compelled to exorcise the sites of past defeats.

By now, it is clear that the coalition grossly underestimated the scale of resistance to water charges. The Kenny/Burton regime has, nonetheless, demonstrated admirable fidelity to its ideological red lines. Despite swingeing concessions, the cast-iron principle of commodification has been steadfastly maintained.

After four years of fruitless resistance, it’s difficult not to be heartened by the sight of a government on the ropes. From a position of sneering impunity, the regime has been rapidly undermined by a series of snowballing scandals arising from the Irish Water affair. Like many a calcified, complacent elite before it, the Irish ruling class is scrambling to respond to crisis after crisis, seemingly unaware that its responses are the crisis.

Denis O’Brien, formerly the poster boy of Ireland’s business elite, is now a hapless hate figure for much of the population. The system of patronage and preference which sustains Ireland’s stratospheric inequality is coming under scrutiny as never before. Establishment figures such as Alan Dukes, untouchable during decades of right-wing hegemony, are visibly stunned and angered to find their pronouncements doubted and questioned.

A key figure in the changed political climate, Dukes’s indignation over Catherine Murphy’s pursuit of the Siteserv deal is genuine and unfeigned. There is much to be taught and gleaned from the mere fact that this malignant didgeridoo was appointed Public Interest Director of Anglo. He represents a class and an ideology which holds – sincerely – that public interest and private greed are literally the same thing. If Dukes and his ilk confused quiescence for consensus, they are being rapidly and rudely disabused of that misconception.

*****

All in all, then, times appear to be ripening in favour of an alternative political proposition. Giddiness and discord are to be expected, and even welcomed, in the circumstances. There are many diverse forces ranged against water charges and the regime of expropriation they represent, and all are sincere in their desire for fundamental and progressive social change.

Some of the strategies emerging from the loudest and most persuasive voices in the movement, however, are misguided, potentially calamitous, and being advanced in rank bad faith. Ever since the bureaucratic component of Right2Water organised a hand-picked conference in May, it has become clear that its ultimate goal is to channel the movement in an electoral direction.

It is also evident that this electoral force, should it ever materialise, is to be conjoined with Sinn Féin at the earliest possible opportunity. This depressing development has been anticipated for some time. Various influential factions within the de facto leadership of R2W have been orienting towards Sinn Féin since last autumn.

For the Syrizists within R2W, Tsipras’s explicit endorsement of the party was always likely to prove irresistible, even if it came just as Syriza’s shameful lash-up with the far-right Independent Greeks cast doubt on its taste in bedfellows.

The bureaucrats’ motives are more opaque, and may amount to nothing more remarkable than a catastrophic lack of political imagination. The lust with which the electoralist approach is being pursued, however, is no less ferocious for its lack of coherence.

So far, it has taken two forms; firstly, an all-out assault on the motivations and credibility of the Trotskyist formations within the movement, over the issue of non-payment. Personally, I have always found the Socialist Party (in particular) far too eager to precisely re-enact the Poll Tax wars, even where the variables of a given campaign militate against it (as during the failed struggle against the Household Charge).

In the case of water charges, however, non-payment is clearly the only winning move on the board. Faced with disciplined mass non-payment – already underway – Irish Water will implode beneath the pressure of its own statutory requirements and political toxicity. Non-payment is the only tactic which can defeat the charge, preserve the mass character of the movement and inflict an unambiguous democratic defeat on the oligarchy.

The second electoralist gambit will be familiar to anyone who suffered through the Occupy Dame Street fiasco, the canonical clusterfuck of recent pan-left politics (in Dublin, at least). The electoral wing is playing the same precarious game as Dublin’s anarchists did – very ill-advisedly, not least in terms of their own prospects – in 2011; tacitly cultivating a crude anti-party anti-politics, the better to ostracise its politically organised opponents within the movement.

This is particularly ill-considered and self-defeating if your ultimate endgame is an electoral one. We might also reflect, in passing, that the socialist left is the only component of R2W with experience of getting actual, non-hypothetical TDs elected on radical platforms, and of using them to good effect.

The electoralist current has ratcheted up its rhetoric in recent weeks, spooked by opinion polls which show a fall in support for Sinn Féin and left-wing alternatives. This response is, I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of the movement and of Irish politics in general.

*****

Many of those who marched against Irish Water throughout the winter will, despite their anger, continue to vote Fine Gael or Labour. Irish voters have been conditioned, by nine decades of theory and practice, to view the polling booth in a particular way; namely, as a private forum to lash out against those most likely to erode one’s own advantages. For much of the population, this is taken to mean – not irrationally – those who occupy the strata immediately below one’s own.

But the starkness of recent events has begun to clarify, beyond refute, the class character of Irish society. The concepts of democracy and political agency, so long defined in stultifying electoral terms, are once again up for grabs. For R2W to short-circuit this process by pandering to the strictly circumscribed parliamentary traditions of the Irish state would be myopic and inexcusable.

Besides which, the prospect of a “progressive” government emerging from the next election is little more than an overwrought fever dream. Sinn Féin’s left-wing credentials have been frenziedly burnished beyond all recognition by the electoralists – a position that appears even more ludicrous now Eoin Ó Broin, Parnell Square’s point-man for all things leftish, has publicly endorsed coalition with Labour.

If anything, the major sub-plot of the next election ought to be the battle between Sinn Féin and the left, a battle to define (or confine) the scope of popular resistance to the water charges and the oligarchy. Sinn Féin understands this, even if wishful sections of the left do not, which is why it poured huge numbers of resources and personnel into an unsuccessful attempt to deny Paul Murphy – an explicitly anti-payment candidate – a seat in Dublin South-West.

For the plural left, supporting a Sinn Féin-led government would be like trying to force an elephant onto a see-saw; even if you somehow get it up there, things are only going in one direction, and it’s not yours.

*****

Both facets of this strategy – the rage against the left within R2W, and a politics which disavows politics – draw from the same well of modish post-Marxist thought. This tendency is especially pronounced within Podemos, and Kieran Allen has delivered a concise critique of its theoretical shortcomings here.

Again, this is a depressingly familiar feature of libertarian-influenced political dissent. Proponents of a politics “beyond left and right” imagine they are carving out a new political space on which to confront power; in reality, they are simply ceding without a fight the ground won by neoliberalism over the past thirty years. In doing so, they share the neoliberal conception of 1989 as a hard reset of social consciousness, as well as its vision of the modern individual as a uniquely self-actualised and rational consumer of ideas.

It’s easy to see why this model appeals to the pro-Sinn Féin elements of Right2Water; after all, if the distinction between left- and right-wing politics is illusory, Sinn Féin’s right-wing tendencies are more readily explained away.

*****

If it holds its nerve, Right2Water can deliver a resounding blow to the Irish ruling class, perhaps the most devastating in the history of the state. The regime has no viable exit strategy; it has, of its own volition, transformed the issue of water charges into a referendum on the right of a moneyed elite to overrule democracy.

To deviate from this task in favour of a sterile, impotent parliamentary idyll would be a gross miscalculation, and an historic betrayal. The inevitable failure of a Sinn Féin government to deliver meaningful change would discredit progressive politics in Ireland for a generation.

For all their vapid sloganeering about big things and small things, the Right2Water bureaucrats appear to have lost sight of the biggest thing of all; the opportunity to defeat the water charges themselves and to pave the way for a new emancipatory politics which can confront Irish capitalism on terms of its own choosing.

If Wishes Were Forces: the Irish Left’s Tartan Turn

September 14, 2014

Had I been spared the cold granite embrace of Dublin, and deposited instead into the cold granite embrace of Glasgow, I could easily imagine myself voting Yes on September 18th. There are eminently rational grounds for doing so, not the least of which is the sheer mischief of the thing; the noble and democratic impulse to pull the pin, cover your ears, and see who gets smeared across the curtains, without which the progressive imagination is fatally circumscribed.

The desire to escape Tory rule is another valid argument in favour of Yes, although it would be wrong to conflate escape with liberation. Cameron’s government is simply the vestigial muscle-memory of the Thatcher/Blair hydra, shredding and clawing wildly to sate its dimly-remembered appetites, its wizened brains having long since stopped issuing coherent orders.

Retreating to a safe distance beyond its immediate reach is a sensible precaution, albeit one that won’t be achieved through nominal independence. Neither Hadrian’s wall nor all his legions would stand a chance against the latte-sipping barbarians of the 21st century, from whichever direction they attack.

Support for a Yes vote in Scotland has been universal and unstinting amongst the Irish left. This in itself is unsurprising; Ireland is perhaps the only country in western Europe with long-term experience of being administered as a bone fide colony of a world power.

Its socialist movement was inevitably conjoined with nationalism in utero, and has since degenerated towards a kind of indiscriminate poly-chauvinism which regards ethnic and national identity as the wellspring of all political legitimacy. Meanwhile, nominally anti-statist Irish libertarians perceive in Scottish separatism a ripple of the identity-based transatlantic currents which have swept them off their feet in recent years.

The prospect of Scottish independence appeals, not only to these sensibilities, but also to keenly-felt pan-Celticist ties of blood and soil. The sight of Scotland taking her place among the nations of the earth (to quote the early 19th-century hero of Irish nationalism, Robert Emmet) gladdens the heart of the national progressive, precisely because it offers a return to a politics of belonging which has long been outpaced by events and outflanked from the right in the miserable, beleaguered Republic.

For years, the re-integration of the national territory served as both means and end for the lonely kindlers of the socialist flame in post-partition Ireland. Although the vision was never elucidated in detail, enosis with the British-administered corner of the island was regarded as a panacaea for the corrupting of Ireland’s revolutionary ideals; in order to be truly socialist, it was necessary to be truly Irish, and vice versa.

This uniquely recursive brand of stagism, proceeding from the nation-state through socialism and back to the nation-state, has seen its lustre dulled in recent years. Nowhere in Europe is class war waged with more gleeful impunity from above than in the Republic, and the rationale offered by its kleptocratic regime (via the most brazenly compliant media apparatus in any liberal European democracy) is one of perverted national unity.

Sinn Féin, by virtue of effective though entirely rhetorical parliamentary opposition in the south, has snatched up the slender threads of the Irish left’s residual romantic nationalism. At the next Irish election, Sinn Féin’s momentum will carry much of the left in its train.

Even as the party openly solicits coalition with the right, it will attract the support of socialists voting, as they now urge Scots to vote, “without illusions” in the outcome (of course, the illusion of acting without illusion is itself the supreme illusion, and right up there with the Jesuit doctrine of “mental reservation” as willful evasions go).

But few truly believe in Sinn Féin’s pink-tinged national progressivism as a viable agent of change, and the party’s self-serving mendacity in Northern Ireland, where it governs in coalition with the far-right Democratic Unionist Party, has not gone unnoticed in the south.

Supporters dismiss Sinn Féin NI’s craven implementation of Tory austerity as a mere vagary of Northern Ireland’s confessional parliamentary system, echoing precisely the not-us-guv protestations of Labour Party members across the border.

But even Northern nationalists now vote Sinn Féin largely to evade the jackboot of Orange supremacism under which their parents and grandparents suffered, rather than in genuine hope of social or economic deliverance.

Thus, an independent Scotland is seen through a haze of prelapsarian Celtic sentiment from across the Irish Sea, as a misty reflection of a time when a leftist could march erect and moist-eyed beneath the billowing tricolour, without caveat or proviso, and know that it was good.

Incidentally, before we venture any further into the leftist ghetto, it’s worth noting that the majority of the Republic’s population, wholly won over to neoliberalism, labour under no such reservations.

They too support Scottish independence, but their nationalism is of a different order, entirely delimited by the borders of the Republic and viciously exclusionary (of the poor, the dole scrounger, the malcontent, the uppity immigrant or Traveller).

Ireland may not have inherited the caste-based social hierarchy of Great Britain, but a century of unfettered rule by a tiny economic elite has cultivated a middle class as virulently reactionary as any in the world.

One of the key figures in Irish socialist mythology was, neatly enough, himself a Scot. James Connolly’s exploits are familiar to most. In Ireland, his fiercely rotund face (surmounting a thick and unmistakeably revolutionary neck) occupies the place reserved for Che Guveara in most leftist iconography.

Connolly is the perfectly protean proletarian icon. His strident rhetorical internationalism assuages his equally strident, and ultimately fatal, Irish nationalism. A master of dialectical obfuscation, Connolly attempted to reconcile militant industrial Marxism with nationalist idealism (his movement’s, as much as his own; the constitution of Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army proclaimed its wish to sink all difference of birth, property and creed under the name of the common Irish people).

Armed with a pithily emphatic quote from Connolly’s playbook, a left-nationalist need fear no embarrassment. His person embodies the inextricable trinity of state, nation and class. SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union, whose collaborationist leadership would put any British union to shame, recycles his image constantly, and his authority is invoked even by Ireland’s ultra-Thatcherite Labour Party. The message of such idolatry is clear; class solidarity must give way to class sacrifice in order to preserve the nation, just as it did under Connolly’s leadership a century ago.

Is this lamentable state of affairs likely to be replicated in an independent Scotland? Probably not, and not merely because the referendum will be defeated, as now seems certain. For a start, it’s no longer 1920. The Scottish electorate has been painfully and extensively schooled in the realities of parliamentary betrayal. The era of the national saviour is past (not that Alex Salmond would have fooled the most credulous nationalist in any era).

But what do Scots have to fear from the SNP, under whose watch the very worst of Westminster austerity has been rebuffed? Here, the Irish example is instructive, and not simply because of the SNP’s avowed intention to replicate the Irish template of a low-corporation-tax virtual economy.

100 years ago, the moderate leadership of Ireland’s nationalist movement, supported by its small native capitalist clique, sought merely Home Rule, and the power to forge a national economy which served its own ends (just as more extensive devolution was the true prize for the SNP).

As in Scotland, it was popular pressure from below and a vision of a different society that forced the moderates towards a complete rupture with the UK. When the revolutionary fervour subsided and the final embers of radicalism had been stamped out, the Irish working class awoke to the sickening reality that it had carved its own gallows. That a state is a state is a state; a vehicle for expropriating public wealth for private gain via the path of least resistance.

The optimal result on the 18th is the one that will almost certainly transpire; a narrow No vote, after a lengthy and fervent debate which has re-awakened the concept of popular sovereignty. Not because the United Kingdom is worth preserving (regardless of the reheated Union-Jacketed tripe served up by the Guardian and David Bowie); the UK is an inherently imperialist and confiscatory national concept, just as Germany is an inherently authoritarian one.

But because the question of who governs whom and on whose behalf is one that cannot be resolved within another piratical fiefdom of finance capital, nestling in the shadow of Fortress Europe. Because these seeds of democratic renewal deserve a chance to ripen and blossom in riotous number, not to be scattered on stony soil.

Yes to popular sovereignty. Yes to crushing the Tories. Yes to democratic accountability. Yes to the elementary humanity of a public health system.

Yes is the right answer, awaiting the right question. Another client state to the empire of capital isn’t it.

GAH Humbug – How You’re Helping the GAA Ruin Your LIfe

September 22, 2013

If you’re of my persuasion (and you’re probably not, unless you’re the sort of reckless maverick who uses parentheses in an opening sentence), Croke Park strikes the eye as a kind of optical illusion. At once monstrously conspicuous – a brusque interruption of a familiar landscape – and curiously invisible, by virtue of one’s utter indifference to everything it represents.

For international readers – Croke Park is the 80,000-seater Dublin headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the body which governs Gaelic Games.

If you’re unfamiliar with Gaelic football, it is essentially an archaic kicking-and-catching code, akin to those played in elite English schools 150 years ago (from which modern football quickly evolved). Its sister sport, hurling, resembles a hybrid of lacrosse and field hockey in which the ball is plucked and volleyed freely.

The common format of the Gaelic Games (amateur players, multiple scoring methods, 70-minute matches) is unrecognisable from those practised at the elite level of sport, and they are better understood as elaborate athletic folk-rituals (along with other regionally popular spectacles such as bullfighting and Morris-dancing). – Dublin Dilettante

It is beyond dispute that football (and there will be no qualification of that term) is the game, indeed the primary cultural outlet, of the global working class. It conquered the world in parallel with the very processes which formed that class, rippling outwards from the British Isles along the earliest currents of globalised capitalism.

Enthusiasm for the game was immediate and uniform, throughout Latin America and Central Europe (except, initially, in Germany, where football was condemned as a malign foreign influence amid a vicious swelling of Teutonic nationalism, but survived and thrived nonetheless).

Curiously, however, those countries which proved most resistant to the game were precisely those which appeared best-placed to assimilate it, by virtue of their cultural ties with Britain.

Even today, football remains institutionally marginalised (though wildly popular amongst much of the general public) in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. South Africa is an atypical case, where majority rule has seen football displace rugby union, the sport jealously favoured under Apartheid as an exemplar of disciplined white supremacy.

Football had the misfortune to take the playing field at a time when all these societies were attempting to disentangle themselves from British influence, with varying degrees of urgency. But in order for the native elites of these countries to  preserve their own political and economic power, they needed a forge national identities which did not conflict with existing systems of ownership.

Cultural and ethnic differentiations were a means of short-circuiting the more radical currents of thought which emerged from anti-colonial struggles in the English-speaking world. Sport was a central battlefield in this cultural war, even in those places where the trenches had to be carved from virgin land.

The supposedly ancient Gaelic Games (and how weird is it that a sport should carry a racialising prefix?) were not actually codified until the 1880s; like so many feats of  “national awakening”, this was hailed as an heroic revival rather than an outright contrivance.

From the very outset of Ireland’s independent existence, the Gaelic Athletic Association constituted the sporting wing of the corporatist Irish state, a state which sought to bring all cultural, religious and social institutions under its control while allowing private capital to operate freely.  Gaelic Games were, in effect, the racial purity and brutal simplicity of De Valera’s Gaelic Ireland neatly encased in pigskin.

Professional football is a primarily urban sport in which the club-based structure tends to highlight local class tensions and divisions. Dublin’s clubs have their roots in unambiguously working-class communities such as Inchicore, Phibsboro and Ringsend.

Gaelic Games, by cunning contrast, are contested at the inter-county level (Ireland’s counties being more-or-less arbitrary parcels of land with no distinct socio-economic identity). It’s hardly surprising that this meaningless and unthreatening “county pride” is relentlessly promoted by the Irish media, political class and the massive multinationals which back the GAA to the hilt.

If you’re still not convinced that the GAA’s supposed centrality to Irish life is a political and marketing exercise, attempt the following:

Take a walk through any estate, park, or viable patch of grass in any major urban centre in Ireland. You will see gaggles of children breathlessly kicking, heading and dribbling footballs, just as – if not God, then some happy combination of human biology and human genius surely intended. (Indeed, it’s significant that football involves the head and feet – the organs of thought and dance – whereas catching codes express the acquisitive desire to grasp and manhandle, to fumble with the greasy ball).

By contrast, the only evidence of Gaelic Games you will encounter will be taking place within caged-off reservations festooned with civic and corporate sponsorship, or under strict and peremptory adult supervision.

The Gaelic, Catholic model of nationalism upon which the state was founded has largely fallen into disrepute in recent years. It has been replaced by Ireland Inc., a perverse concept which presents the “favourable business climate” as the bedrock of 21st-century patriotism.

But this novel definition of Ireland as a patchwork of taxation rates and share prices excludes the populace entirely, and makes for a vague and tenuous claim on their allegiance. And so the GAA must continue to be fostered, the atrophied black heart at the centre of the Irish state, the eternal reminder that your ancestors were every bit as unworthy and servile as you are.

Their Apocalypse and Ours

February 20, 2012

The word “bandy” is bandied around all too often these days, but one term that’s been getting a thorough and undeniable bandying in recent months has been “social cohesion”.

Like many standbys of liberal discourse, it functions at a double remove from material reality, as a kind of euphemism for a euphemism. Since a precise definition is elusive, it can probably best be arrived at by a process of exclusion, following is usage amongst the Irish commentariat as a guide.

This phenomenon of “social cohesion” is never espoused as an end actively to be pursued. Rather, it is only ever invoked in terms of its negation – “loss of social cohesion”, “breakdown of social cohesion” etc, usually by reference to the salutary example of Greece, where such a breakdown is supposedly imminent (this is highly instructive, as we’ll discover in due course).

In fact, the loss of social cohesion is regarded not as an evil in itself, but merely a potential existential threat to business as usual (the bailing out of banks and the preservation of the euro at any and all costs).

A few things that aren’t considered a threat to social cohesion (again taking the pronouncements of the Irish establishment as our guide):

Mass emigration, and the tacit and explicit encouragement of same by government ministers.

The subjugation of all existing democratic models to the primacy of the markets, as a matter of both principle and practice.

The positing by the national media of the existence of a “coping class”, assailed from below by the parasitical poor.

The cultivation of a climate of suspicion and resentment, which encourages citizens to spy and inform on one another with impunity, and to regard teachers, nurses, firefighters and other social service providers as thieves from the common purse.

If none of this sounds like the stuff of harmony and fraternity, it’s because, once again, social cohesion is not the object here. The concern is merely that the host organism is beginning to run out of blood.

In Greece, the collaborationist Papademos régime has abandoned even the perfunctory evasions of its Irish counterparts, in favour of hysterical threats and outright repression. From the European media’s racially-aggravated depiction of events there, we can deduce that the following are considered threats to social cohesion:

Mass public expressions of social solidarity.

Hostility to the national and supranational architects of austerity.

Popular demands for democratic oversight of economic policy.

Identification of former imperialist aggressors with contemporary forms of imperialist aggression.

The pursuit of common cause amongst diverse strata of society.

At one level, this is simply a crude and transparent shell game, designed to offer the evangelists of austerity some measure of plausible deniability. In its peculiarly Irish manifestation, however, it nourishes itself from the fetid swamp of petty resentment which lies beneath the foundations of the state.

Liberals always believed that the curtain-twitching bien-pensance of post-independence Ireland had been transplanted wholesale from the pulpit to the parlour. The easing of the Church’s stranglehold over public policy (and it’s sobering to think that only the revelation of widespread and irrefutable child-rape made this possible) has changed little in this regard, however.

Instead, we’ve witnessed an ascension of the divine consciousness from heaven to Frankfurt. The pitting of citizen against citizen, the holy terror of becoming corrupted by the weakness of others, has not been abated by the transition.

The economic forces which dictate the ravaging of society are protected at all costs, with no sector of society – not the unemployed, not disabled children, not the old – exempted from service as human shields, in a crude parallel to the scapegoating of single mothers for problems arising from poverty.

At every turn, citizens are encouraged to see entitlement as privilege, and privilege as entitlement. The spectral hordes of fraudulent welfare claimants haunt Middle Ireland’s dreams, even as their taxes pay for useless multi-million euro reports by the ideological architects and beneficiaries of the crisis. Michael O’Leary becomes a put-upon underdog, while the teacher coping with the fallout of a moribund society in a vermin-infested building becomes a freeloading hedonist.

It is this total identification with the system (not on its own merits, but merely as the prevailing system) which makes every act of resistance, from the SPARK protests to the Campaign Against The Household Tax, all the more admirable and all the more essential.

The political establishment, the media, and their masters in Europe fear that deviation from their ideological consensus will lead to the breakdown of their system of governance; our challenge is to prove them right.

Preoccupied on Dame Street

October 27, 2011

Sometimes, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a sickle.

After three years of asymmetric class warfare and suffocating ideological conformism, it’s wholly understandable that any stirring of organised (but we’ll come back to this) resistance should be welcomed with enthusiasm on the left. The potentially epoch-defining Occupy Wall Street protest represents a slow awakening of class consciousness within the belly of the beast. The copycat movements triggered by OWS throughout the technologically-advanced world, while nowise to be compared to the infectious popular heroism of the Arab Spring, are not without significance.

Its logic may be uniform, but the dictatorship of capital reigns over a wide and varied kingdom, and the occupation tactic is more suited to some quarters than others. Greece, where a volatile coalition of organised labour, political radicalism and popular resistance is forcing the ruling class towards endgame, provides one salutary example. There, the sterile, “apolitical” Syntagma Square occupation inspired by the Democracia Real movement actually sapped momentum from the struggle earlier this summer. In Chile, however, the mobilisation called for the global day of action on the 15th of October fanned the flames of a student revolt which has been raging for months.

In other settings, the Occupy movement (like its stillborn Real Democracy Now twin) has taken on the aspect of an internet meme which made the species jump into the human population and found itself unable to replicate there. Occupy Dame Street doesn’t quite fall into that category, but its contradictions are deep and profound. Whereas Occupy Wall Street wore its union endorsement with pride, its Irish offshoot proved ambivalent to organised labour and outright hostile to the organised left from day one.

There were a variety of reasons for this; the political persuasions of the core group, an understandable (though at times hysterical) aversion to working with the SWP, a reluctance to alienate potential converts gorged on a diet of anti-union editorials.

These proscriptions are gradually being relaxed, potentially estranging those who want nothing to do with the selfish, job-destroying, pension-hogging union bastards, and found such views initially unchallenged by the occupiers. (It could be argued that the influential autonomist tendency have proven their point; it was precisely their maladroit de facto leadership which erected these obstacles to begin with).

This past week, Occupy Dame Street weathered a downpour likely to be the equal of any the Irish winter can muster. It’s still standing, and I’ve no doubt it will go on standing as long as the bodies and minds of the camp residents hold up, and probably well beyond that. The stamina, resourcefulness and tenacity of the residents has been inspirational, and nothing forestalls breaking-point like a comrade at your shoulder. But whereas the boisterous processions from Parnell Square to Dame Street have doubled in size week-on-week, the number of bodies manning the camp itself has yet to see a corresponding increase (not that such an increase could be accommodated in any case).

These natural limitations of the Central Bank site, and its vulnerability to the encroaching winter, are frequently-cited criticisms of the movement. This is unfair; both issues were as unavoidable as they are insurmountable. We shall simply have to add al fresco insurrection to the list of activities for which there is no suitable season in Ireland, alongside cricket and rock festivals.

The physical precariousness of the camp has, however, come to necessitate a sort of liberal sŏn’gun policy, whereby the needs and maintenance of the camp itself take precedence over all else. This has had serious implications for a movement already struggling to resolve its political orientation and terms of engagement with the public and wider working class.

Having sat in on a couple of working group meetings, the overwhelming impression was one of organisational paralysis (actually the strongest impression, to be indelicate, was the class and socio-economic background of those involved, but that may be a churlish observation.) The challenges posed by the consensus-based decision-making model have been freely acknowledged within the movement itself, but the tendency to regard them as minor logistical teething problems is misguided.

In fact, these problems are inextricable from the prevailing political and ideological deadlock. With only the broadest and faintest of parameters to guide them, individuals and working groups are reluctant to be seen to act unilaterally. When referring an item to the General Assembly only serves to further confuse matters, a perfect feedback loop is completed.

All roads lead back (however frustratingly, however predictably) to the question of programme. Aside from the noli-me-tangere warning to the left, there’s nothing objectionable, and plenty that’s commendable, in the Occupy Dame Street mission statement. When organisers address assemblies and rallies, however, the messages become more mixed. The fallacy that opposing the IMF/ECB programme is “not a matter of left or right” enjoys frequent airings.

Three years into a crisis caused by rampant neoliberalism, deregulation, disempowerment of the working class, and the underlying structural paradoxes of the capitalist system, anyone who can proffer this argument is either being incredibly naive or incredibly disingenuous. This non-differentiation between right- and left-wing critiques of the bailout programme is not just foolish, but extremely dangerous. A quick detour to Co. Cork may help explain why.

For the past few months, the tiny village of Ballyhea has hosted a weekly march against the bailing out of bondholders, one frail flicker of resistance on a landscape clouded with apathy. Last weekend, after a visit to Dame Street by the chief organiser, the villagers were treated to an audience with Mr. Declan Ganley.

It’s unlikely that Ganley would be welcome at Dame Street, where the superb Occupy University initiative has witnessed talks and workshops by people like Paul Murphy, Eugene McCartan, David Malone, Gavan Titley and Conor McCabe (if money were no object, I’d have 2,000 copies of Sins Of The Father air-dropped over the next march).

Murphy’s address to the rally on the 15th was passionate, lucid and articulate, but his carefully-phrased appeals to attendees as workers fell on stony ground; largely, I sensed, because most listeners simply didn’t understand the linkage, and nothing they’d heard had served to forge it for them. (As an aside, the CWI’s almost Debordian reverence for the General Strike as exemplary spectacle is even more noticeable when starved of context).

Three weeks into the occupation, the spectre of the SWP exerts as powerful a hold over the imagination of the camp as ever. Dark mutterings of “packed” assemblies abound, along with stern assurances that future infiltrators will be identified (presumably a special derogation excludes SWP members from the 99%). Paranoia and insecurity are deeply unattractive qualities, and a movement capable of being co-opted by a Trotskyist micro-party, however bad its faith, is a movement that has stalled beyond revival.

Occupy Dame Street is not necessarily such a movement, but its window of opportunity for correcting those initial mistakes is closing fast. The crucial instincts and insights which can carry the struggle forward are present, and not entirely dormant, within the group. Namely – that our labour is all we have that the 1% want; that the demand for “real democracy” cannot be satisfied under capitalism; that, historically, Dublin is a city taken by storm or not at all; and that occupying a symbolic location is a poor substitute for occupying our communities, hospitals and workplaces.

George Romero’s lengthy, generation-spanning series of zombie movies describe an arc in which the undead gradually begin to rediscover their human instincts and habits over the course of decades. In a country gasping beneath the death-grip of zombie banks, Occupy Dame Street is perhaps best understood as a kind of zombie protest movement, with depoliticised and disenfranchised victims of the epidemic gradually re-learning the basic motor skills of resistance.

It’s a slow and tortuous process, but consciously turning away from what we know and have always known about challenging power isn’t going to expedite it.

Taxi for Tiki-Taka: The Dialectics of Football

July 22, 2011

I’ve always been relatively ambivalent towards the tiki-taka phenomenon, without ever quite understanding why. Having since puzzled it out, I now realise that simple recourse to onomatopoeia would have saved me a deal of soul-searching. The childlike flippancy of the term itself encapsulates much of my aversion to the style it denotes.

In an era of neo-brutalist vulgarity, in which forwards are equally prized for their defensive as offensive qualities (Tony Grant might have been an unlikely pioneer of the age, had he not abnegated his place in history by scoring freely up-North for Glenavon), Barcelona’s attacking, progressive football is rightly regarded as a breath of fresh of air.

Concessions are made to certain indispensable elements of the Zeitgeist; Barça press hard, but to state that a modern professional football team presses hard is to state that it fields eleven men. The Spanish national team, with the explosive and unquantifiable variable of Lionel Messi excised from the equation, represents arguably the purer strain.

I think I’ve expressed before my preference for the Russo-Ukrainian school of football espoused by Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv and USSR teams (they were essentially one and the same). The following is an excerpt from Lobanovskiy’s book The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, quoted by Jonathan Wilson in this month’s World Soccer.

“When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play.”

“If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counter-play, then we need to find a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game”.

(Thought you’d escaped the politics, didn’t you? Not so fast, motherfucker!)

Attempts to conflate styles of football with the political and cultural environments in which they flourish are invariably tenuous (where they’re not downright mischievous). But Lobanoskiy concocted a style genuinely expressive of egalitarian values; a hard-running, dynamic, counter-attacking game which was exhilarating to watch, all the more so because it was played at such pace (unlike tiki-taka).

In Lobanovskiy’s framework, every member of the team was a potential playmaker. The man in possession, whether he was a full-back, a midfielder or a central defender, was expected to launch the counter-attack with a single long pass to a free player as soon as the opponent relinquished the ball. Likewise, everyone was expected to chase down possession with equal fervour.

This is where the crucial cleavage between the Russo-Ukrainian school (faint echoes of which survive in Eastern Europe today) and tiki-taka becomes apparent. Lobanovskiy strove for constant movement of both ball and man. In his eyes, a player who could release the ball and then receive it back in the same position wasn’t working hard enough.

The Barça model lacks that kind of rigorous humility and a certain amount of, as it were, Dynamism. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad Barcelona won the Champions League, and I’m glad Spain won the World Cup. But they are teams to be admired, not teams to be loved. They neither aspire to, nor are capable of attaining, the sublime (except in the person of Messi). Rather, their holy grail is the achievement of absolute technical competence, like a backroom of IT geeks, or Fleetwood Mac.

A small, blackened corner of my heart drew immense satisfaction from Barcelona’s defeat to Inter in the first leg of the 2010 Champions League semi-final (as dismayed as I am by any outcome which burnishes Mourinho’s reputation).

Barcelona showed up at San Siro expecting to pass rings around a flat-footed collection of South American has-beens, cast as the Washington Generals for one night only. Instead, Guardiola’s side visibly wilted in the face of a fearsome fusillade of passionate, attacking football which cut them down to size. Their self-satisfied arrogance had blinded them to the dialectic of the game; they had no response.

One could make the claim that FC Barcelona’s success has given contemporary Europe the champion it deserves; a technocratic elite, backed by big money, which parades across the continent beneath the banner of UNICEF in a false posture of social solidarity.

Shut Down, Shut Up

July 15, 2011

The Lie That Came In From The Cold

June 24, 2011

Following documents were swiped off the desk of an inattentive Eurocrat within the past hour (he was colouring in a map of Latin America at the time, for some reason). Further extracts have been withheld for exclusive publication in the Independent over the next 39 weeks.

(Larger: 1, 2)

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The Day éirígí Saved Dublin

May 18, 2011

It won’t have escaped your attention that certain historic events are afoot in Dublin this week. How do we know they’re historic? Partly because every news bulletin hammers home the historic nature of the Queen’s historic footsteps through historic Dublin’s historic streets, in the historic course of an historic visit which will echo, historically, in the historic history books of historical history.

Yesterday, however, certain flies infiltrated the historic ointment. Like all the worst flies, they were, if the outraged histrionics of Middle Ireland were to be believed, dirty, disease-ridden and disgustingly common. Let me clarify a few things before I proceed. There are few sights which distress me more than Celtic jerseys and ranks of tricolours, especially when they’re combined. I will own to being fairly fanatically non- and anti-nationalist (in the broadest, rather than specifically Irish, sense.)

I don’t like eirígi. I think republican socialism is an oxymoron, an ideological ouroboros wherein the head devours the tail; that Connollyite national chauvinism of the éirígí/IRSP/CPI variety is a dead-end and intrinsically anti-socialist. I think attempting to shoe-horn the present political status of Northern Ireland into a classical imperialist paradigm is bargain-basement “national liberation” mumbo-jumbo of the most incoherent kind. I see no compelling argument for the inherent justice of this island’s territorial unification which doesn’t ultimately redound unto the purity or impurity of blood.

On that basis, I wasn’t particularly exercised by the impending state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland. I knew the obsequious, hand-chafing servility of our political establishment (now entirely composed of self-seekers and opportunists; a Fianna Fáil government might, strange as it sounds, have handled the occasion with marginally more dignity) would be fairly nauseating to behold, but also fairly easy to ignore. I knew the Queen was unlikely to deliver a thundering denunciation of our dole-paying, service-providing deviancy and demand that we cut further and faster, which placed her several rungs above most of our distinguished international visitors.

Demonstrating against her visit seemed, therefore, a needless and potentially misguiding diversion for the left to engage in. Yes, it’s possible to raise questions about the inherent absurdity of monarchy, and the Queen’s role as titular commander-in-chief of the British armed forces’ murderous operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and, not so long ago, Northern Ireland. But to be honest, it’s a wee bit of a stretch (particularly with the actual executive power behind those ongoing outrages shortly to arrive in person), and Bríd Smith didn’t make a great fist of it on Vincent Browne’s show last night.

There is something to be said for the notion that the Queen’s visit represents a full stop at the end of a traumatic chapter of enmity between the peoples of Britain and Ireland; having never been aware of any such generalised enmity, I don’t see it, personally, but nor do I demean it. Equally, it’s easy to see how the gilded spectacle of a royal visit fits into the timely and convenient infantilization of Irish culture, almost as a more stately postscript to last week’s Jedwardmania.

Two things changed my mind, not on the substantive issues, but on the significance of the event. One was the ring of steel off-handedly thrown around Dublin for the duration of both state visits, and the extraordinarily casual breaches of what liberals call (when they don’t belong to other people) civil liberties, far exceeding the disruption occasioned by any industrial action in recent years, albeit with a markedly different response.

The other was the gathering realisation that the Queen’s visit was being used by our establishment to, as Hugh Green so deftly put it, “draw a line under Ireland’s revolutionary history.” Now that Ireland has graciously extended the fair hand of reconciliation to Her Majesty, we could finally see that tumultuous process of dangerous, ideologically-tinged extrication from the vampiric clutches of empire for the jejune, but above all outmoded, preoccupation it is; and certainly as nothing which holds any relevance today.

Equally, if not more, notable was the shock and awe campaign which constituted the unprecedented Garda presence on the streets of the capital. A stage-managed, bouquet-strewn popular euphoria might have better served the narrative, but there was a more important principle at stake. This was power communing with power, to the very definite and very conspicuous exclusion of the people. If you thought these were your streets, upon which to exult or excoriate as you saw fit, then, to coin a phrase, you could jolly well grow up and move on. It was an opportunity (denied the government by the low-key nature of the IMF’s presence) to reassert the violent and exclusionary power of the state, and the impotence of the people, in a way which hadn’t presented itself since the student protests last winter.

The most visible challenge to this enforced consensus came from éirígí. Well, that’s not strictly true. In fact, most of the violence (such as it was) seemed to emanate from unaligned or differently-aligned republican groups, but éirígí, being tainted with socialism, was a better fit for the low-life, simian, working-class refusnik caricature for which Middle Ireland lusted so.

Before I go on, let me add a few more disclaimers. I’m not so desperate for a foretaste of revolution that it quickens my blood to see the cops get a decent chasing, and I don’t think there’s anything heroic or particularly smart about small groups of young people without popular support throwing things at the police (in fact, a revolution could be quite neatly defined as the point at which it becomes unnecessary to throw things at the police.)

There is no justification, moral or tactical, in present-day Ireland for acts of aggressive violence against the state security forces. Yesterday’s violence, however, while unnecessary and unfortunate, was, much like the police presence itself, largely symbolic. The only people endangered by it were the alleged perpetrators.

That said, it’s questionable whether any country in which the state’s repressive apparatus can mobilise officers in their tens of thousands, shut down the capital’s main thoroughfare, harass citizens going about their daily business, and NOT have things thrown at them has any right to call itself a healthy democracy. If you think the oh-so-delicate blossom of liberty is more threatened by a handful of working class youths lobbing missiles than by swarms of riot police excluding the citizenry from its own streets on prior presumption of guilt, then you weren’t paying much attention for most of the 20th century.

The purpose of this massive police operation is to reinforce the ideological lock-down which has existed in Ireland for (conservatively) the past three years. It is about the pre-emption of politics and the stifling of dissenting voices. Now is not the time for questioning, legitimately or otherwise, the role of the British monarch or the statements such visits make about the relationship of our ruling class to their international counterparts. Now is not the time for protesting about student fees, Corrib gas or public sector pay-cuts. We are in a state of emergency.

Those small bands of protesters, by their mere presence in the face of unprecedented intimidation in service of hegemony, refused to relinquish their own democratic rights and prevented the diminution of everyone else’s from going unchallenged. For that reason, I would quite happily bestow upon them an appellation which means nothing to me but may have some significance to them; patriots.


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