Notes on the referendum campaign

1. There has been renewed talk lately that the ‘turn’ must come, that we are rapidly approaching some point where a widescale, popular resistance to the neoliberal way of life will manifest itself. Conor Kostick, in his talk on Irish soviets for Occupy University, speculated that future historians might even note that we have already passed the watershed without realising it. Now, it is unfair and inappropriate to read the tea leaves through the referendum campaign alone. Yet the clear preference for a Yes from those who voted at all suggests a population that is still very much abject. It is hard to even imagine what this long-awaited moment of decision looks like, at least in Ireland.

That is not to say that Ireland will not simply be overtaken by events elsewhere in Europe, though that is less desirable than a surging desire for self-determination at home. It is not unreasonable to believe that the treaty will become a nullity in a half a year, a year, eighteen months. This, rather than a dewy expectancy that Irish citizens will soon reach their fill, is change that can be depended upon. At the same time, the significance of the latest complications in the economic shakeup (the Dutch government’s collapse, Sarkozy’s Nixon-in-’62 moment) should not be overstated. Austerity is not just going to ‘go away’; instead it will seek to renew itself. The old brand of austerity always needed a double act to survive, and now that Sarkozy has departed, the stony intransigence of Chancellor Merkel will have to be modified. Hollande’s friendlier version of popular privation will probably be the way that it happens, and the oxymoronic, Pushmi Pullyu programme of austerity with a ‘growth plan’ seems likely. ‘Tough choices’ was always the best narrative for assaulting public spending anyways; it is much more difficult to present when its implementers seem to enjoy what they’re doing.

Ultimately, what all this proves is that these economic programmes are implemented on the basis of political expediency, as ways for power to insinuate itself — the Thatcherite embrace and then disavowal of monetarism and Friedman-brand psychopathy is this phenomenon’s most pertinent antecedent. It is much more difficult to deal with opportunists than it is with those who can be ideologically neutralised. This is the reason why it is dangerous to assume that those in political power have some interest in preserving their privileged position, the state. Political and economic leaders have been effortlessly exchanging their roles since the Second World War; when every last vestige of the state is rotted away, the maggots will simply leave the host.

The next battle, as it really was with the treaty campaign, will be to dissuade people from the urge to be ‘reasonable’, that some kind of compromise can be reached with those who want to bring the very idea of social solidarity to an end, who only wish to convert national budgets into financial products.

2. I say that we must argue for being unreasonable, and I want to say a bit more about that.

The success of an idea can be measured by how tenacious it is in the face of rebuttal. Despite the numerous contributions on the subject from public representatives, dissenting economists, guests on Vincent Browne (which is mystifyingly held up as some kind of Irish political bellwether), and ‘foreigners talking on the BBC’, the number of people asking in mock exasperation, ‘If the No side could just for once explain where we would get the money if we reject the treaty…’ was endless. Punditry and election analysis are unadulterated mysterymongering, almost always used to retroactively frame the winners’ victory as inevitable, so I am reluctant to comment — but if a single reason can be isolated for last week’s result, it is probably that those who voted felt sufficiently backed into a corner. Whatever the deficiencies of the No campaign, every argument for voting Yes was a form of blackmail extraneous to reason. Even the argument for ‘good housekeeping’ – nonsensical in itself, and exploitative of a general ignorance of the role that deficit spending has played in political economy for the past eighty years – even this was a threat, that somehow if we didn’t do this then another Celtic Tiger crash was inevitable.

Perhaps the reason that this question of where ‘we’ ‘get the money’ became so problematic is connected with the scope of the debate itself. It is not an appealing prospect, the idea of going to the public and saying that our choices are either 1) to continue being bled dry, and to abandon any idea of a society of equal partnership, or 2) to risk a cataclysm that would at least provide us with the possibility of later hope. I am not practical-minded enough to even know how this would be done, and I understand on some level why it was either not chosen or was neglected. What is clear, however, is that because the debate was not extended into these very questions, because it became a routinised ‘loan application’ of an argument, the outcome was foreseeable, however horrible.

For example, it was never (or nearly never) articulated in the campaign that the Irish budget is already dictated from above, never mind what would happen after the imposition of a second bailout (an eventuality that has slid silently from dangerously loose talk to common-wisdom certainty in the past year). Small potatoes, maybe. And maybe the supreme control of the popular press — not one Irish newspaper endorsed a No vote – was simply too difficult to surmount.

But there was still very little talk of what the European project is about, or what it should be, rather than what it is. The linking of the household charge, etc to the treaty makes a sort of intuitive sense, but only by the scenic route: the household charge/property tax is in the memorandum of understanding, which arrived with the bailout, necessary because of the bank guarantee, based on the same prioritisation of debt repayment over social spending as codified in the treaty. But this was hardly made clear; instead it appeared as an obvious association with an immediately previous success. It sought to further cultivate an emotive, highly individualistic resistance that is not rooted in mutual concern and is neither dependable nor particularly useful.

What was lacking was not so much the articulation of a specific alternate plan, costed and presented as some kind of pan-European budget submission; what was missing was an awakening of the public to the kinds of possibilities and even necessities that a Europe beyond austerity would entail. These days, this alternate vision is only considered within the framework of whether or not a state should remain within the euro, and of course this is most serviceable to those who wish to preserve conditions as they are. But the closest thing we got to a future framed in terms of possibility and not peril was Declan Ganley’s Dungeons and Dragons manual for a federal EuropeThis fellow on Twitter quite rightly pointed out that Ganley’s position, that the Irish demand a better deal before signing anything, could just have easily made more people stay home than vote No. It asked voters to do something that could not be articulated through the referendum.*

There is much love these days for Syriza, and it is well-deserved, although perhaps by now it is also overheated, considering the difficulties that the coalition faces, and whether such difficulties will end in painful disillusionment, whether or not Syriza ‘compromises’. Some battles you just do not win. The great strength of Syriza, however, is that it has been able to present a clear image of alterity. This is simply not present in Ireland. Sinn Féin is gaining substantial ground on the basis of things like the referendum campaign, but it is also doing so while scrupulously avoiding going beyond an oppositional stance. Sinn Féin’s opposition is cosmetic, and the gains that it is making probably do not present its members with any motivation for changing tack. In other words, Sinn Féin cannot be relied upon to do this work of articulation. That responsibility falls to the much more loosely affiliated Left, with all of the familiar frustrations and anxieties that entails.

In a way, austerity was not the central issue of the treaty — and people sensed this when they objected that voting No would not make austerity magically disappear. This was the most crucial point of engagement that never happened. People made this objection, however much of a straw man it was, because they had no reason to suspect that politicians in Leinster House or in Brussels would ever turn against austerity as a programme. That was simply never going to be the case, and so the decision became how best to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Instead, here are some questions that could have gotten a wider hearing: Can we rescue the European Union from its status as a mill for capital, or must we start all over? Is the European Union capable of an economic programme, or was the euro only ever going to be a means for central European economies to pass on reams of credit to peripheral states, without any rules or requirements for fiscal transfers if things went wrong? And, more broadly, why do we accept want in an age of unprecedented wealth, and why do we accept a steadily compounding hierarchy of rule when popular freedom seems so readily at hand?

These are hugely inconvenient and perhaps unworkable questions for a referendum campaign, but there is no reason that they should be abandoned now that the posters are coming down off the lampposts. The point should not be to seek credibility from those who have already proclaimed that there is no other option but their own; be reminded that their impression of democracy is that of dysfunction — that if people disagree, if there is some uncertainty about the future, then it must be eradicated at once, that equilibrium and harmony must prevail always, and that the only acceptable equilibrium is frozen, unchanging, enforced from above. This approach is never a plausible recipe for long-term success, but it is important that we musn’t simply wait for others to fail.


* Think of the ballot in terms of how much information it can carry: essentially a binary operation, a 1 or 0. There is no space at the bottom of the ballot for the voter to express their reasons one way or the other; even if it were possible to read all of their comments, there would be no point. The economic powerbrokers were not looking for the qualities of the voters’ validation, but simply for their assent. That is another discussion entirely, but suffice it to say that referenda are only democratic to the extent that they are tolerated. Victories for power are always framed in the vaguely positive manner of the ‘people’s will’; but when Greece shoves away austerity, or when Ireland seizes up the march of European progress with a No vote, these are terrible, worrisome fiascos, and they mean that the baby monitor by the markets’ crib must be turned up extra loud in response. {jathumbnailoff}

Image top: three_point.