Citizens' initiatives, cave dwellers and the harsh fire of thought control.

While there is no question but that We The Citizens has some entirely laudable aims - the reimagination of our broken political system; placing citizens at the heart of deciding what kind of country they wish to have – it ignores questions of power and autonomy, placing its faith instead in an imago of a free individual who will, given the opportunity, express opinions and beliefs which are untainted by power and ideology. Ignoring the existence of structures that shape all our ways of thinking and being, writes Mark Cullinane, means that the emancipatory potential of such a movement will always and forever be frustratingly, depressingly, suppressed.

Anyone who's ever taken Philosophy 101 should be familiar with Plato's famous allegory of the cave. It tells of the plight of a group of prisoners who have spent their whole lives chained to the wall of a cave, their heads immobile, compelled to face a blank wall in front of them. As a large fire roars behind them, mysterious figures cast shadows on the wall- meaning that the prisoners, inevitably, come to take these shadows to be real things rather than mere reflections and distortions of reality. Designed by Plato as a means of demonstrating the ways in which what we see as reality may be nothing more than an elaborate conditioning, this allegory has powerful lessons for anyone in present-day Ireland who believes that the solutions to Ireland's post-Tiger crises lie simply in harnessing the ideas, passions and ingenuity of its citizens.

Amongst the spate of citizens' initiatives that have sprung up around the island in recent times, one fresh-faced youngster catches the eye (and given the generous media coverage, it could hardly have failed to). The We The Citizens initiative, backed by a bevy of Irish-based political scientists and the substantial financial largesse of Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropies, seeks to, in their own words, give 'Irish people the chance to help renew our Republic and to contribute to new models of citizen engagement'.

It seems somewhat churlish to take on the well-worn role of hurler on the ditch and offer criticism to what is undeniably a well-meaning group of people who are trying to do their bit to spur public engagement in politics. So, in the spirit of Niall Crowley's admonishment in these pages last week of the 'lofty, state funded academic' who engages in 'debilitative sniping' of those who seek to build progressive movements, I will make a particular effort to remain constructive.

Essentially a series of regional brainstorming exercises on how to restore faith in Ireland's political system, the We The Citizens initiative will culminate in a more elaborate weekend-long exercise in Dublin, involving a representative sample of 150 people chosen by a polling company who are to be given 'an opportunity to come to informed decisions about issues relating to how Government operates in this country'. Issues arising from the regional meetings will be chosen, and 'neutral briefings' will be provided to participants who will be allowed to call 'expert witnesses' to inform their views, and ultimately make 'decisions' on the issues at hand.

In an Ireland which, by any measure, boasts only a pseudo-democracy, surely an initiative like this which seeks to position the citizen at the heart of the political process should be welcomed with open arms, right? If you believe that some discussion is always better than no discussion, then the answer will be an unambiguous yes. However, this author is rather hesitant to crack open the metaphorical champagne over yet another citizens' initiative, for quite a few reasons.

It’s not that this particular project doesn't have something going for it. The people behind We The Citizens correctly identify that we have a broken political system that requires reimagining. They correctly identify that in a democratic republic, citizens should be at the heart of deciding what kind of country they wish to have. The Achilles heel of We The Citizens - and of other similar projects - is that they have utterly forgotten that we are also chained to a wall in a cave staring at shadows.

In this age of free markets, free speech and free everything, it is not fashionable to talk about the ways in which power exerted from various sources impinges so fundamentally on our modes of thinking, and consequently, our behaviours.

I'm not just talking about the lack of critical thinking in Ireland's dismally narrow and unimaginative mediasphere, where the empires of Tony O'Reilly and Denis O'Brien (not to mention a pliant national broadcaster) utterly dominate the landscape and systematically reduce the opportunities for oppositional thoughts to be expressed.

I'm more interested in the ideological content of Irish discourse, the master narrative of which can be quite reasonably be identified as that of neoliberalism. The operating logics of neoliberalism are not solely carried by the mass media. Its totalising presence pervades every level of Irish life, from the political system to the educational institutions which facilitate cross-generational ideological transmission.

We like to think, of course, that the inculcation of ideology is something that happens to other people in other countries. We tsk-tsk at the idiocy of the Tea Party marchers in the Unites States for opposing the introduction of a more humane healthcare regime and paradoxically championing the rights of big business to oppress them. But we in Ireland have a not dissimilar affliction, having been thoroughly conditioned to sing, impeccably, to the tunes of growth economics, the indisputable existence of the 'confidence fairy', and to label any dissenters as being 'unrealistic' or not living in the 'real world'.

Of course, there is nothing new in the suggestion that asking the people what they want results in responses that may run entirely contrary to their interests. Social theorists have been diagnosing the distorting influence of power over our minds for a long time. Antonio Gramsci called it repressive hegemony; Karl Marx called it false consciousness; more recently, Jürgen Habermas called it systematically distorted communication.

Broadly speaking, all refer to the ways in which, as Iris Marion Young puts it, 'the conceptual and normative framework of the members of a society is deeply influenced by premises and terms of discourse that make it difficult to think critically about aspects of their social relations or alternative possibilities of institutionalization and action'.

Young's article usefully explores the challenges faced by those who champion processes of deliberative democracy, like We The Citizens. Her most biting criticism, that deliberative democrats tend to lack a 'theory of ideology', is extremely pertinent here. She argues that 'Deliberative democrats focus on the need for agreement to give policies legitimacy, and they theorize the conditions for achieving such agreement, but the idea of false or distorted agreement seems outside the theory'. She goes on to make the point that for deliberative democrats, discourse seems to be 'innocent'.

For the organisers of We The Citizens, enormous faith is put in the ability of the autonomous, rational, free individual who will, given the opportunity, express opinions and beliefs which are untainted by power and ideology. It is a noble vision, but a profoundly naive one. Not because, I am at pains to add, ordinary people cannot or should not be at the heart of the political process, but because the cacophony of messages, ideologies and doctrines that we are permanently subjected to coalesce to form a profoundly distorted communication that suppresses our ability to, in Young's terms, think critically about social relations or to imagine alternatives.

We The Citizens lays the responsibility for renewing Ireland solely at the feet of its people, putting great store in our individual agency. We can pull through, it tells us, if only we have better ideas.

It is just the sort of uncontroversial formula for recovery that the media fawns over. Like the peppy, upbeat official campaign advertisements and YouTube videos produced by the organisers, the coverage of We The Citizens in the mass media has been, for the most part, predictably soft-focus and happy-clappy. Finally, they tell us, the citizens will have their say, and the world will be put to rights.

The only note of televisual critical reflection came, as is frequently the case, in a discussion on TV3's Tonight with Vincent Browne, in which the Irish Independent's Fionnán Sheahan took aim at UCC political scientist Jane Suiter, part of the We The Citizens academic panel. Apart from some jibes about what he saw as a strongly middle-class whiff around the whole enterprise, he suggested that the recent general election gave people an adequate opportunity to voice their political preferences. Did the general election, Sheahan asked, in which Fine Gael captured the lion’s share of the vote, not adequately reflect the will of the people? The one-dimensionality of Sheahan's thinking notwithstanding, it does raise the question that if citizens know that the system is broken, then why did we elect a right-wing party to lead the coalition? The answer can only lie in what goes on in the mists of obfuscation and distortion that bridges the gap between what people profess to value and what their political choices end up being.

Gene Kerrigan wrote last weekend about why we should be wary of the unadulterated positivity and chirpiness of campaigns like We The Citizens, which ask their participants to leave anger and 'negativity' at the door and urge us all to become peppy social entrepreneurs, reimagining an Ireland for the public good as we tuck into free food and drink in nice hotels. It is, incidentally, far easier to manage and to mediate the deliberations of cheerful, happy people, bursting with positivity. Habermas conceived of the conditions which enable a critical consciousness to flourish in rather different terms. For him, vibrant democracy involved rather fewer scientific surveys and comfortable hotels and rather less colourful branding, and instead placed an emphasis on constantly questioning the terms on which communication was taking place, and was frequently what Young described as 'far more rowdy, disorderly, and decentered'.

Yet, Kerrigan's and Sheahan's potshots on what they see - possibly quite correctly - as the unhelpfully chirpy, upbeat and middle-class tone of the We The Citizens project miss the opportunity to make more fundamental observations about the whole enterprise.

Self-censorship: Thought control in democratic society

Although we might consider the strength of neoliberal discourse in Ireland to be utterly dominant, its real genius lies not in its total dominance of the mind and spirit or that it has managed to rid us of all reminders of our shared humanity and our desire for collective solidarity (it hasn't); but that it has so totally managed to suppress our ability to conceive of solutions which profoundly challenge the organising principles of that economic system. By making the logics of market capitalism invisible and inevitable, our efforts in conceiving of a better world invariably come to nothing, because they must take place within the constraints of that system. After all, as we are so frequently reminded, this is the 'end of history', and there is no alternative.

This doesn't mean that participants in initiatives like We The Citizens won't come up with an array of very laudable and progressive - if predictable and vague - suggestions for renewing Ireland. Already, those involved have thrown up ideas like greater probity in public life, an emphasis on open Government, and a more active citizenship. Similarly, whilst participants will no doubt be able to come to broad agreement at the level of values that should underpin a better Ireland, fundamental questioning of the conditions under which we live our lives tend to be precluded. Not by design, free choice or by the censoring of organisers, but through self-censorship brought on by the suppression of our political imaginations by the forces mentioned above.

In this context, it does not seem controversial to predict that participants in the We The Citizens project will not call for a radical re-examination of Ireland's relationship to economic globalisation, the free market, or growth economics more generally.

We The Citizens fails to either identify or challenge that invisibility, and it is therefore destined to produce only 'warm fuzzies' - plenty of good feeling, even some good ideas - but very little that fundamentally challenges dominant modes of thinking and being.

One can imagine why the organisers of We The Citizens might be reluctant to challenge the sources of distorted communication. Rather than being able to immediately ask participants to dive into discussions on political reform, the political scientists would have to deviate from what they see as their core competencies and dive into the muddy waters of socialisation processes and the ways in which power and ideological hegemony is won and sustained. Making the assumption that participants will provide rational, unsullied opinions and ideas when prompted to is a means of side-stepping this issue entirely - making life easier for all concerned, but hobbling the transformative potential of the process.

There is no doubt that constructing processes and structures of deliberative democracy that are constantly critical of any and all assumptions - and that are rowdy and decentered - places a significant burden on participants and organisers alike, but it is an utterly necessary burden. Getting it right is a monstrously difficult task, to be sure, but it is also the most exciting - and urgent - one of all.

Political scientist as modern-day oracle

There are other reasons to doubt the efficacy of the initiative. Announcing that all stages of your project will be 'independent, objective and transparent' are three of the greatest hostages to fortune imaginable. Independent of whom? Objective in what sense? After all, the initiative makes overt value claims. And given the commitment to full transparency at every stage of the process, can we expect to see full disclosure of the research methodologies chosen by the organisers, as well as publication of the raw data produced by the participants for the public to peruse and interpret at their leisure? Or will the political scientists involved, like a sort of modern version of the oracle at Delphi, take on the role of priests whose task is to translate the frenzied opinions of the masses into something coherent and ready for public consumption?

There are also signs that the academic team can't resist but to bring to bear their own worldview on the process by using the platform as a means of dispensing their presumably sage advice. The 'talk' section on the We The Citizens website which invites users to comment on a small number of discussion threads started by the organisers - but, significantly, not create their own - recently featured a brief analysis by Prof. David Farrell on the failure of the Yes to AV campaign in the United Kingdom to win sufficient support in the recent referendum. His analysis centers almost wholly on the lack of public consultation on AV and the way in which it was 'foisted' on an unwilling electorate.

The flaws of the political process by which what UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg famously called the 'miserable little compromise' of AV came to be put before the people of the UK are likely well known to CrisisJam readers. But where in David Farrell's conception, and indeed that of We The Citizens more generally, is the role played by propaganda, spin and manipulation? Would the lies and deception of the No to AV campaign - for that is what much of it was - have been somehow nullified had a group of citizens come together to discuss AV in a consultative setting? It seems absurd to believe so. It all smacks of a one-dimensional and impoverished view of the political process that once again assumes that placing the citizen at the heart of the process will automatically result in desirable and legitimate outcomes. Perhaps in their eagerness to appear non-elitist, a simplistic and myopic worldview has been adopted which imagines everything through a citizens-led lens and renders invisible the many and powerful processes that colour how we see the world.

Return to the cave

It is reasonable for Claiming Our Future's Niall Crowley to ask for a degree of latitude from the academy or indeed the political Left towards the efforts of groups to build movements based on deliberative fora like those of his organisation, 2nd Republic, or indeed We The Citizens. It must be acknowledged that there is nothing easy about progressive movement-building.

It is, however, equally reasonable to suggest that there is a world of difference between what he calls 'debilitative sniping' and the expression of genuinely held concerns about the assumptions that help shape the form and outcomes of such fora.

So although it is much too early to offer a comprehensive analysis of the contribution made by We The Citizens in helping us make sense of the travails of present-day Ireland, let us not focus our criticisms on its middle-class aura, its well-funded and professionally-packaged nature or its demand for polite, forward-looking positive thinking. Let us set aside concerns that the process looks to be a highly mediated one with the initiative's academic team in a prime position to filter and to set the agenda – consciously or unconsciously - in ways that suit their interests. None of those things would matter very much if its design managed to assist us in penetrating the processes of thought control that, more than anything else, comprise the fundamental reason why we are where we are.

We should instead criticise We The Citizens and other similar initiatives precisely because they fail to encourage us cave-dwellers to gaze into the flames that distort and shape our ways of understanding the world. This failure means that participants are consigned to generating meaning from shadows and echoes; and the emancipatory potential that surely exists in every human gathering remains inevitably, frustratingly, depressingly, suppressed.

Twitter: @mcullinane

Image top DaveKav.