Welcome to the desert of the realists
And welcome to the election day special edition of CrisisJam. In the political debates of the last few weeks it has been genuinely remarkable how little has been said about those vulnerable groups within Irish society who have borne most of the impact of a crisis visited upon us by the greed and negligence of the political and corporate elite. In this week's CrisisJam, we will try and bring the focus back to the principal victims of the recession – the unemployed, poorly paid and migrant workers, young working class people imprisoned for the most innocuous offences, those condemned to misery by the cutbacks in healthcare. While things may be bad now, they might be about to get a whole lot worse. In this introduction, Colin Coulter sets out to place this crucial – if predictable – election in its proper context.
So this is it then. The settling day is finally upon us. The moment that we will cast our minds back upon – even as it happens – as the turning point in the history of the nation. When we decided to draw a line under all that unpleasantness and resolved that the best thing going forward was, well, going forward. In the press and on the airwaves, this is being universally depicted as the most important election in the history of the state, as the day that 'Ireland decides'. But we all know that to be merely a comforting fiction. Almost all of the really crucial decisions that affect Irish lives were taken some time ago and most of them were made elsewhere. Those tens of billions of euro that were cast into the void of a terminally ill banking system cannot be summoned back into existence. And the powers ceded to the agents and agencies of transnational capital will not be returned without a fight for which our tear jerkingly patriotic leaders evidently have little stomach.
None of the parties that can reasonably aspire to hold office after the ballots are counted have anything to offer that might be persuasively deemed as 'progressive'. The vacant homogeneity of mainstream political discourse over the last month has been indexed most vividly in the growing desperation of the media to keep us watching and listening. As with all errant children, we demand a few party tricks and pyrotechnics to retain our interest. The choreographed enthusiasm of the corporate media seeks but clearly cannot quite manage to stage a spectacle designed to induce and record our compliance. We are spoon fed a giddying sequence of opinion polls that are evidently authors of that which they are solely meant to narrate, encouraged to feast on psephological detail in the hope that we will hallucinate motion in a system that has long since ceased to function and invited to witness the rather less than edifying sight of three identically attired dullards squabbling over minor differences in their blueprints for the same gallows.
The sheer poverty of word and deed of the Irish political class is both cause and effect of the growing ubiquity of a certain technocratic mindset. As the current crisis has taken hold, we have been encouraged to believe that the walls of political possibility are closing in all around us. There simply exist certain immutable political realities that, for all we can gather, appear to have just sprung from the earth or fallen from the sky. In such straitened circumstances, the function of governance becomes merely the marshalling of a civic-minded maturity that will reconcile us with our lot. The role of the political class is not to offer a vision of a better future but rather to implement an ever more narrow range of technical decisions guided by experts in Frankfurt and Washington. And there is no possibility of it ever being otherwise. Even if the cure is worse than the disease, there really is no alternative. So there is very little point in complaining. Just take the blue pill and return to the gentle embrace of eternal slumber.
While the technocratic turn in Irish politics has been apparent for some time, it has become acutely evident during this election campaign. The distinctions between the principal political parties have come to resemble those fine calibrations that are the hallmark of bureaucratic distinction. In so far as there has been any real debate over the last month, it has entailed the three main party leaders suggesting very slightly different routes to exactly the same destination. And that destination is one of prolonged austerity and utter economic abjection. This is of course the unspoken and obscene irony of the 'realism' that has recently come into vogue in Irish political discourse. Whenever alternatives are offered to the IMF-EU 'bail out', they are quickly dismissed by the political mainstream as the daydreams of children unwilling to acknowledge the contours and boundaries of the 'real' world. The truth of the matter is, however, that those who reject out of hand radical new departures that might just get us out of this mess do so in the full knowledge that the strategies they endorse can only lead to economic catastrophe.
There is then a knowingly ghoulish spirit at work within the political elite in this country. Whenever politicians on the campaign trail meet and greet ordinary members of the public they do so in a manner reminiscent of the hangman who shakes the hand of the soon to be deceased in order to ascertain their weight. All of the major political parties know that the 'bail out' can only result in the economic death of Ireland. The only real difference between them is in terms of how long they feel they can or should prolong our agony. The strategy advocated by the likely coalition partners of Fine Gael and the Labour Party entails a re-negotiation of the IMF-EU loans in order to secure a slightly lesser rate of interest. But we will never make those repayments either. All that renegotiation would mean is that we would take slightly longer to squander more or less the same amount of cash before the inevitable admission that we will have to default. So each of the principal political parties is advocating essentially indistinguishable strategies that they must know – at least when they are off message or off camera – are simply doomed to failure. Somehow, in the morally distorted world of post Celtic Tiger Ireland, that sadism is what has come to pass for political 'realism'.
The narrow gauge of mainstream political debate that has marked the era of crisis tends to invite a certain fashionable fatalism among the more boutique versions of radicalism in Ireland. The differences between the principal parties are so negligible that it is tempting to think that it matters not a jot which of them secures power in today's poll. While understandable, this widely held indifference is nonetheless thoroughly mistaken. This election will – as one commentator of this parish noted in the Guardian – see the exchange of 'an exhausted centre-right party for an enthusiastic one'. Fine Gael are about to assume office with a ringing popular endorsement for policies that Fianna Fáil lacked both the mandate and perhaps the nerve to introduce. That they are uninhibited by direct responsibility for the crash will mean that the party will have a perhaps unique opportunity to use the crisis as an opportunity to shape Ireland in their own image. Fine Gael have plans for us. And if you thought that things could not get any worse, you might just want to think again.
There are numerous clues as to the particular vision of the 'New Ireland' that Fine Gael has in mind and most of these are enough to send a chill down the spine. Anyone interested in what the Blueshirts have in store for us will find countless premonitions in the increasingly frequent public pronouncements of the politician who was the youngest member of the outgoing Dáil. In the last week or so, Lucinda Creighton has clearly been seeking to court a little controversy, presumably in order to elbow her way to the front of the queue when the ministerial portfolios are handed out in the coming days. Whether the party elders will forgive her reckless political infidelity of last summer remains to be seen, but if there is anything that will thwart the ambition of the Dublin South East TD it certainly will not be a lack of appetite for self-promotion. In recent days, Creighton has repeated to any journalist within earshot that it is the intention of both she and her party to vanquish 'vested interests' that exercise undue influence and to eliminate fraud. Now there are a couple of political ambitions that sound both promising and entirely reasonable. Who among us would disagree that the influence that certain powerful groups in Ireland exert within the political realm should be eradicated? Surely any party committed to ensuring that government policy would no longer be in thrall to the demands of multinational capital, bankers and property speculators must be worthy of a vote. And who would quarrel with the argument that the culture and practice of fraudulence in Ireland needs to be brought to an end? Surely the time has come for the government to ensure that the six thousand wealthy Irish citizens who are registered as domiciled elsewhere in order to avoid paying tax here begin to pay their way, that reckless gamblers who owe us several hundred million euro no longer receive rents from the public purse, that multinational corporations like Google are not allowed to escape with corporation tax bills a quarter of the size that they should be. In reality, alas, Fine Gael have no such reasonable and progressive moves in mind.
The 'vested interests' that Fine Gael will so valiantly seek to vanquish are not of course those of indigenous and transnational capital but rather those allegedly pursued by the trade union movement. And the 'fraud' that the party is so keen to eliminate is – equally predictably – not the corporate tax evasion that is so rife in this country but rather the less frequent and fiscally much less significant abuse of the social welfare system. The people that Fine Gael intend to hound and punish are not the architects of this baleful crisis but rather its victims. In effect, the party that is just about to take power has declared war on the poor, the public and the different. The breadth and venom of its ambitions are only too apparent every time Lucinda Creighton chooses to share her accumulated wisdom with the rest of us.
In the closing week of the election campaign, Creighton issued various public pronouncements clearly intended to grab the attention of the media and to position her as an ideological zealot in the popular imagination. Last weekend, the Dublin South East TD sought to cast herself as an admirer of what are usually deemed to be 'traditional family values'. Creighton posted on Twitter that heterosexual marriage should be encouraged on the grounds that matrimony was 'primarily about children, [its] main purpose being to propagate & create [an] environment for children to grow up'. It is reassuring to hear such socially progressive views from the Fine Gael spokesperson on, of all things, equality. That ill-judged and rancorous excursion into the virtual world was quickly followed by comments that are more standard Blueshirt fare. The front page of the Sunday Independent last weekend featured yet another article suggesting that the blame for the crisis should be laid at the door of organised labour. The hostility expressed by other Fine Gael figures was echoed by Creighton when she observed darkly that if her party was to be elected the trade unions 'should be worried'.
While every campaign of self-promotion by a populist reactionary demands the occasional bout of union bashing, none is complete without some vigorous demonisation of the feckless poor. On her website, Creighton sets out her policy priorities for the period ahead. Among the various issues that feature is the entirely predictable promise that Fine Gael in power will combat abuses of the social welfare system and will thereby save an additional €500 million for the long suffering taxpayer. This planned crackdown on welfare fraudsters will, inevitably, entail increasingly systematic surveillance and harassment of the poor and the unwell. What leaps out at you here is the sheer lack of fiscal ambition disclosed by this particular strand of Fine Gael policy. The savings that are promised from a strategy that will heap yet more misery upon the unemployed amount to around half a billion euro. That is – from a certain perspective at least – a distinctly miserly sum. It is, most importantly, a drop in the ocean of cash that is lost to the state because large corporations and wealthy individuals simply do not pay their fair share of tax. If an amount as trifling as half a billion were ever to end up lodged down the back of an impeccably upholstered settee in a stately dwelling on Shrewsbury Road, the renowned entrepreneur and tax evader Denis O'Brien might not even be able to summon the interest and energy to go looking for it. Any government that instituted a genuine regime of tax compliance would garner billions from the individuals and the companies that run corporate Ireland. But Fine Gael has no intention of pursuing such a course. It would rather spend its time harassing the poor in pursuit of small change.
There is one further feature of Creighton's personal page that offers a clue as to the course upon which we may just be about to embark. The website hosts a promotional film for Fine Gael entitled 'I Have Plans'. The ninety five second video platforms a sequence of people who narrate to camera some cherished but almost entirely mundane ambitions which they are confident Enda Kenny can help them realise. While the film features various individuals of different ages and in different locations all around the country, it is immediately apparent that there are certain categories of people who are notable by their absence. In a slick production that spans a full minute and a half we see not one person with dark skin and we hear not one accent that suggests its bearer originates from elsewhere. While the film is billed as offering a vision of Ireland's future it might more accurately be seen as a fantasy of a particular version of Ireland's past. In the stunted imagination of Fine Gael, the new Ireland is remarkably like the old Ireland, a place of modest personal ambition in which everyone looks and sounds the same.
For all the narrowness of the political debate that has marked this election campaign, the outcome of today's polls remains as important as it is inevitable. The installation of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach will both confirm and accelerate a vicious turn in Irish politics to the right. The policies that Fine Gael will pursue will, as with their predecessors, seek to place the blame for the crisis on the shoulders of its victims. The vision of Ireland to which the party clings is one in which the poor and the weak are harangued and surveilled, in which the ideals and institutions that sustain a sense of the public good are decimated, in which there is no room for those born elsewhere or their children within the national imagination. The heartless policies that Fine Gael will implement will of course be cast as matters of technocratic precision. We will be informed that these measures are the only ones available to us and have the endorsement of the leading experts in the field. While the technocratic ideal may well be dispassionate and impartial in a certain sense it is always precisely the opposite at the same time. The passions and partialities that inform technocracy are disclosed by its evil twin, a double that embodies those feral proclivities that are ever present though repressed in the modern world. It is this dark spirit that will in part animate the government that will be formed in the coming days. The well-manicured spokespersons for Fine Gael will of course grudgingly issue their regrets over what they are about to do before offering assurances that there is no other course available. But we all know that is at best a partial truth. When Fine Gael humiliate the poor, compound the misery of the low paid, sack the public sector workers, hound the immigrants and all the rest, they will do so in part because they think they have to but also because, deep in the darkest cells of their hearts, they really, really want to. The outcome of this election is not simply then a changing of the guard. It is in effect a declaration of war. This might be a good time to think about picking sides.
[Image top via spike55151 on Flickr]
This edition of CrisisJam was curated by Colin Coulter. CrisisJam is produced every week by Eadaoin O'Sullivan and Alison Spillane.