Naming the Shameless

The onset of recession might have been expected to ensure that those jaded ideas that got us into this mess might be set aside. In reality, however, the end of the boom only appears to have strengthened the authority of neoliberal doctrines. Hugh Green maps out the strategic poverty of public discourse in Ireland during the crisis...

The forthcoming elections will take place in the depths of a massive economic and political crisis, but none of the main political parties that seek a role in government will address the fact that the crisis - the cost of which is borne by ordinary people, and most of all by the poor - is a product of neoliberal capitalism. The beast will go unnamed. In fact, any proposals to address the crisis will studiously stay clear of any language that might imply a break with the policies characteristic of a neo-liberal state. There will be talk of better management and governance, of fairer policies, of an end to crony capitalism, and so on and so forth.

All these promises pose no threat whatsoever to the neo-liberal order. If anything, they reinforce it, by creating the impression that affairs of government need to be reordered in the same manner as those of a private corporation, and by letting the nebulous idea of fairness function as a substitute for justice. Nothing will be said by any politician who aspires to govern that might refer to the class antagonisms upon which the neoliberal order depends - unless it is to deny that such class antagonisms exist.

The Labour Party, which presents itself as a left-wing party, will say nothing about redistribution of either income or wealth. If Labour enters government, as looks likely, it will pursue policies in line with constraints imposed by IMF loan drawdown conditions. Where the next government deviates in some small measure from the prescribed path, this will be presented as a brave victory, even though the shrinking of the welfare state, the brutal internal devaluation strategy and the lockdown of neo-liberal politics, with its demands that the population be subservient to corporate power, will continue. The situation prior to the EU-ECB-IMF bailout, in which Ruairi Quinn admitted that there was no disagreement in political Ireland on the necessity for massive cuts, will most likely disappear down the memory hole.

Of some interest is the matter of Sinn Féin. The Republican party is the only one with Dáil representation that has presented economic proposals which reject policies based on the neoliberal consensus. Given the fact policies deriving from this consensus have destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland, and will cause even more destruction in the years to come if allowed to continue unimpeded, a visiting alien might imagine these proposals would receive some measure of media attention. But since the Irish media exist in the main to mobilise the collective unconscious of businessmen and their political acolytes against the population, the party's proposals were mostly ignored.

Ignored, that is, in terms of their content. But there was a response to Sinn Féin's position. The criticism that Sinn Féin stand against neo-liberal policies in opposition but implement them when in government - as in the Northern Assembly - may prove accurate, should the unlikely event of their participation in the Southern government arise. What interests me here, however, is not the detail of Sinn Féin's position, which on the whole seems to me broadly progressive, but how vehemently any dissenting position, which is to say one which goes beyond the standard bromides of 'reform', 'fairness', 'better government' - none of which are dissenting positions within a neoliberal order anyway - is stamped upon by media machinery.

Consider what happened before Christmas, once Pearse Doherty had made the Dáil speech that seemed to chime well with popular anger. Doherty made his speech on Wednesday 7 December. At the beginning of the following week, the top news story in the Irish media was the matter of a WikiLeaks cable concerning Bertie Ahern's belief that the Sinn Féin leadership was involved in the Northern Bank robbery. The substance of Ahern's allegations was public knowledge five years previous: the leaked cable communicated no information that had not been widely available to the Irish public at the time. The newsworthiness of this story had been determined, as Gerry Moriarty put it in his Irish Times piece probing the potential impact to Sinn Féin's 'credibility', by 'WikiLeaks bringing all these issues back on to the agenda'. It was as though it had been WikiLeaks, and not the Irish media, that had decided to seize on the content of the cables and place it as the main headline on Monday morning radio bulletins, thus returning the matter of the Northern Bank to the public attention. Strangely, WikiLeaks's powers of bringing issues onto the agenda did not work quite so well when it came to the cable detailing the US Embassy's suspicions that the Fianna Fáil government, in 2007, had introduced stricter checks at Shannon Airport for US Military planes for electoral gain, even though it had 'consistently... acted to ensure continued U.S. military transits at Shannon in the face of public criticism'.

Expressions of dissent – and especially those that entail direct action - are routinely depicted and denounced in the media as violent. In November, Joe Duffy pressed éirígí councillor Louise Minihan on whether the next step from throwing red paint over Mary Harney would be snipers on the streets. The Ictu march in December was prefaced by predictable media rumblings about the possibility of riots. The spectre of explosive violence is an effective coercive tool in orienting voting preferences.

The 'national interest' is invoked in a range of settings - from fascist dictatorship to the modern neoliberal state - as an inducement for citizens to switch off their minds and simply get on with things. A host of pariahs - the reds, Al-Qaeda, the far-left anarchists, the Provos etc – come to represent threats to a national way of life that is held to be outward looking, confident, dynamic and peaceful. The existential bogeyman promises to revisit past trauma and is used by the state to marginalise dissent. If anything approaching a substantial challenge to the neoliberal orthodoxy materialises in the coming months, even at a merely rhetorical level, expect the spectre of explosive violence - from IRA bombers, Bolsheviks, anarchists and so on - to be called forth to haunt the Irish population's political imagination.

By contrast, the structural violence of unemployment, job insecurity and the withdrawal of essential public services prescribed by the EU-ECB-IMF, willingly administered by politicians ensconced in neoliberal doctrine, and cheered on by the Irish media, will be put forward as the poultice for healing the trauma. One Ireland, dynamic, transcendental, peaceful, going forward...

An urgent question, then, is how to get people to recognise the structural violence outlined above, and the endless flow of managerial silver bullets from political parties, as the product of a particular discourse: that of neoliberalism. The conditions of the EU-IMF-ECB 'bailout' are not pointy-headed economic prescriptions: they are a lockdown, designed to evacuate politics from policy, to destroy collective institutions, so that financial institutions receive their pound of flesh, and so that the logic of the free market unfolds unimpeded. If people can't name it, they can't resist it. As a result, they get caught up in the interminable managerial gasbaggery about reform of political institutions, the relentless focus on 'waste' in public services (as though the funneling of countless billions to banks never happened and is not happening) and a creeping disenchantment with the potential of politics to change anything.

This disenchantment will be fuelled, of course, with ad infinitum junk promises of 'new politics', 'reform', 'fairness' and so on. If nothing changes but the government, then once the cheap high of a change of government fades, and unemployment continues to rise, and living standards continue to fall, the disenchantment will slip into the desperate nativism that is the flipside of the shiny, dynamic, transcendental One Ireland.

So, as you can see, I am quite optimistic about the prospects for the forthcoming election. All that is needed is a massive popular movement with a robust communications apparatus that is able to name neoliberalism as the beast to be slain. How that might be achieved is a matter of some concern, though I do think the United Left Alliance (but jeez, why not just United Left?) is one strand of a small move in the right direction. But once that question has been resolved, a bright future awaits us all. It could be quite a year...

An extended version of this essay is available on Hugh Green's website The Punishment of Sloth.

(Image via M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)