Bullet, dodged

My daughter was nearly born to the sound of Seán Gallagher. No, seriously. It was a few months back and there was nothing on TV in the hospital apart from Dragon’s Den, and Seán Gallagher was talking, and my wife all of a sudden went into labour and our daughter was born roughly two minutes later, safely out of earshot of the TV.

I think it’s in Guatemala where peasant women who help deliver babies carry a thimbleful of honey, and they give the newborn baby a little taste of the honey so that their first encounter with the outside world is bound up with the taste of something sweet. Among other things, my daughter’s first encounter with the outside world could have been bound up with the sound of…well, I’m happy to think of it as a lucky escape, even if she couldn’t have understood a word.

Do people realise how much of a bullet Ireland has dodged with Seán Gallagher’s defeat? Suppose Martin McGuinness, for whatever reason, decided not to bother exposing the matter of Gallagher’s role as a fundraiser for Fianna Fáil, and Gallagher had managed to carry on with his vacuous quasi-fascist message of strength, the abolition of negativity, and the exaltation of entrepreneurship just long enough to ward off any sort of critical light getting shone in his direction and to get just enough of the vote and preferences to sweep him into the Áras.

It’s true that the office of president, despite being considered the ‘highest office in the land’, is a largely ceremonial role and victory in a presidential election is largely a matter of symbolism. But symbols determine reality. A great deal of emphasis was given to Gallagher’s Fianna Fáil past by other campaigns, though I doubt this put off too many people with a long-standing habit of voting Fianna Fáil. That Gallagher was a characteristically venal FF stooge obscured the fact that it was his appearance on the TV series Dragon’s Den, produced by the state broadcaster, that gave him sufficient profile to stand in the first instance.

Dragon’s Den – and the last time I watched it was the night my daughter was born - is a highly popular TV programme produced by Screentime ShinAwiL, which also produces similar in-it-to-win-it programmes The Apprentice and Fame The Musical. Screentime ShinAwil’s own description of Dragon’s Den is “hopeful Irish entrepreneurs” pitching their business schemes “in front of five wealthy and successful venture capitalists”.  It was aired on the public broadcaster, RTÉ, and sponsored by Bank of Ireland, one of the six State-guaranteed financial institutions. An RTÉ press release outlines the vision behind the show:

Real Entrepreneurial Stories Dispel Recessionary Gloom for Huge TV Audiences

Happy stories of real entrepreneurial spirit, expertise and success are offering respite to huge television audiences, seeking to dispel recessionary gloom, as well as impacting on featured business's bottom line.

RTÉ's Dragons' Den, sponsored by Bank of Ireland and produced by Screentime ShinAwil, the second series of which came to a close this week after eight episodes of nail biting, must-see television, attracted an average of more than 409,000 viewers across the series.

“Happy stories” about “entrepreneurs” intended to “dispel recessionary gloom”, commissioned by the public broadcaster and sponsored by a bank run by millionaires and kept afloat by a State guarantee. Do you see something wrong with this picture?

Gallagher’s campaign was all about maintaining relentless positivity. Like many a candidate in neoliberal states, he claimed he was not a politician (let us recall Franco's advice: do like me and don't get into politics) but an outsider. Other examples of this tendency that spring to mind include Álvaro Uribe in Colombia and Barack Obama in the United States. Apart from this, he highlighted (somewhat unreliably, it seems) his “business expertise” in advising “charity, voluntary and community groups helping them to maximise their resources and achieve their goals” and encouraging the youth “to innovate and find their own enterprising solutions to today’s challenges”.

On different levels then - the unrelenting fetish for ‘entrepreneurship’ (recall what Ha-Joon Chang says about entrepreneurs: poor countries are full of entrepreneurs because either the social institutions necessary for growth and prosperity have not been developed, or they have been hollowed out); the exaltation of charity as a virtue; the managerial weasel words that comprised most of his utterances, Gallagher’s candidacy seemed to represent the withdrawal of the State from society in a comparable fashion to David Cameron’s Big Society. But at the same time, Gallagher also stood for a continuity with State domination of civil society groups that characterised the social partnership era.

Though the comparisons were with Uncle Fester, Gallagher was more a sort of Frankenstein’s monster: a State cultural production, made in collaboration with a State-funded bank, geared towards depoliticising the recession and encouraging people to think happy thoughts instead.

At the same time, the cultural production of which he was a part was designed to present the vision of an ideal society: one made up purely of individuals who either rise or fall based on their own genius or lack thereof, who stand alone before the verdict of powerful capitalists who can make them or break them at a whim.

Whatever kindly spirit Gallagher deployed on the programme probably had some influence on the way people viewed him favourably. Since he was said to be the nicest, most kind-hearted and decent of the ‘dragons’, as at least one newspaper profile put it, he represented the exception to the rule: with hundreds of thousands of people unemployed, a boss who would try hard not to fire you is not an unreasonable thing to hope for. In reality though, he was the exception that proved the rule. Michael D. Higgins may not change much, but a Gallagher victory would have emboldened right-wing forces in Ireland who seek the complete alignment of the priorities of the State with the needs of Capital.