The will of the people, adjusted for reality, approved by experts. It’s time for Technocracy Now!

Election 2011 is the most important political event in the history of the state. It provides the people of Ireland with the chance to play Bill Cullen and hire the best, those with the liathróidí, nimbleness and expertise to find different ways of telling us there is no alternative. Gavan Titley introduces Crisisjam’s election week celebration of technocracy, now.

I recently overheard what follows in a Dublin cafe, from a middle-aged man, whose corduroy camouflage and pitch of surety betrays him as a fellow academic, as sure as pheremones. He is holding court to - and maybe in his own mind courting - a much younger southern European woman, about our fucktard country. The syllable break is held for emphasis, and also for relish, underlining the hipster neologism. Fuck - pause, in ¾ time - taaaaard country. Where do I start? It has ever been thus. Do you know I have been saying this for years? Blue. In. The. Face. You have no idea what those criminal bastards in the Catholic Church did to this country. Generations of Irish people repressed, fumbling around in the bedroom like mechanics doing an NCT. One party rule as well, do you know that? Bastards. I mean it. Really. Bas – tards. It’s not just the corruption. I mean what qualifications do they have to run the country? Teachers, accountants, small town solicitors taking oaths, sticking rosettes on pigs at Foróige festivals. Please. I’ve been saying this in the classroom for years. Of course it’s not just a bog thing. It was all backed up by the goms in the civil service. Do you know the civil service isn’t accountable to the Taxpayer at all? They had nothing to say, nothing, about the housing bubble. At least we had McWilliams. But I’ve been talking about this in the classroom for years. We basically have to start again. Get rid of all this parish pump crap and get real expertise in there. Plenty of that among the Independents but we just have to manage this thing properly, get people that are fit for purpose. Yes, I did think about standing myself...End of Quote.

In his new book Global Slump (2011), David McNally describes a strange hiatus of capitalist bashfulness following the global banking crisis of 2008 and prior to the retreaded malignancy of the austerity agenda:

As the tectonic plates of the global economy shifted, financial shocks rocked the world’s banks, leveling many of them. Panic gripped money markets, stocks plunged, factories shut down. Tens of millions of people were thrown out of work; millions lost their homes. An extraordinary uncertainty shook the world’s ruling class. The mood of the moment was captured in the confession by senior writers with the Financial Times that, ‘The world of the past three decades is gone’.

Of course, in the performance of politics, much of this uncertain thoughtfulness was so much show and tell. Those totally unstaged pictures, at the time, of Nicolas Sarkozy totally reading Das Kapital were about as random as those totally unstaged snapshots of Teri Hatcher totally eating in a New York burger joint. Several other leaders predictably scrambled for this Marxian makeover, and some even remembered to get a team of interns to thumb the pages and place question marks in the margins before the photo shoot. Nonetheless, as McNally documents, the meltdown came so close to tipping into a complete collapse of the financial system that a ‘...small but important space opened up for real discussion and debate about our economic and social system’. We could fill several CrisisJams with an analysis of this gap, and the many networks, movements and arguments which have used it to think about the future of transformative Left politics. But when it comes to Ireland, it is best to start modestly, and retreat from there.

A useful point of modest retreat is provided by two hugely successful books in the Anglophone world during the hiatus, Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level (2009), and Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land (2010). Part of The Spirit Level’s success – which in turn accounts for the frenzy of shop-front ‘think tanks’ set up to attack it – is that it offers quiet statistical and empirical evidence for a position that comes close to progressive commonsense. Focusing on expanding inequalities in income in rich countries, their account of the impacts and costs of inequality in health care, educational access and social mobility allowed for ideological but also scientific appropriations; that is, a post-political argument that the proven collective costs of inequality evidence the need for a progresive response. Judt’s book, in turn, depends heavily on the empirical work done by Wilkinson and Pickett. It also proceeds from the criticism that animates his other recent work Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2009) where he critiques the ‘unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not just the practices of the past...but their very memory’. For Judt, the (very) broadly defined European welfare state emerged as a prophylactic state, erected not so much as an ‘advance guard of egalitarian revolution’ as to blunt the post-war appeal of Communism for the immiserated and traumatised masses of Europe.

Thus in Ill Fares the Land, what animates Judt is the multiple and predictable present and future costs of this smug amnesia, symbolised by the broad parallels he draws between the 1920s and and the now of high youth unemployment and the ‘dispiriting purposelessness’ of the world gifted, tout court. But if the land is ill it is also because it lacks capacities for diagnosis, as the costs of the neoliberal husking of politics include the loss of any discourse on the ‘good society’, and a manifest failure to use the crisis to think about what kind of societies or states we want. This is where we begin to circle the question of modesty, even allowing for how far Ireland falls outside of Judt’s generalised model of social democracy. In calling for a return to the public values of social democracy and a politics of ‘incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances’, Judt characterises and defends this ‘modesty’ as a political value. It is an argument for another day as to how these modest proposals square with McNally’s argument that the massive subvention of the financial system has ushered in an era of neoliberal mutation and class war, where bank crises are morphing into sovereign debt crises, and signalling the beginning of a prolonged global slump and recurring efforts to shave the public bone to the marrow. While the politics of many Crisisjammers would lie well to the left of Judt’s dissertation, it has a symbolic importance here, as the general absence of its modest tenets in Irish public culture signals a telling failure of political imagination.

The argument for today is that in Ireland, the petri-dish of this mutation, McNally’s critical gap has barely been prised open, and Judt’s basic questions barely posed. Faced with sovereign bankruptcy, mass unemployment and the release valve of emigration, we are told we need stability and strong government as barely elaborated ends in themselves. Faced with plentiful evidence that the ethanol is leaking from the Irish spirit level and that ‘Government policy looks set to produce a dramatic increase in poverty and social exclusion’, we are told that further adjustments are necessary. Faced with what appear to be serious fractures in the geopolitics of the European Union, we are gifted proxy audiences with the Keepers of Kapital and reassured as to the mechanics of European partnership. Confronted with a situation where only mass popular protest and mobilisation can shift the parameters of politics back to the Real, we are granted an election where, for the most part, national management teams undergo a barely taxing audition. And this, we are endlessly reminded, is the most important political process in the history of the state Welcome, then, to Technocracy Now!

Slump, slumpy, slumpiest

This special edition, starting today and trickling down over the next week, explores the technocratic hegemony of the election-era politics in Ireland along three prongs of a very special fork. It wouldn’t be an election without some politicians, and Ireland’s political class, for the most part, have been quick to assuage market trauma by particularising the global ‘austerity’ agenda, described by McNally as ‘effectively declaring that working class people and the poor will pay the cost of the global bank bailout’. There is a strange reflex at work among the main parties. Keen to move away from ‘auction politics’ – the extravagant promises of spending made during campaigns – we have, instead, reverse auction politics, where pain for all is promised. A key dimension of Technocracy is that differences in power, material possibility and structure are simply ignored, and it is a notable feature of politics in Ireland that the more the ‘pain’ is discussed, the more it is actually assuaged away. We all partied, and we’re all in this together, even if some of us are more ‘vulnerable’ than others. Thus while pain for all is promised, it is mainly promised as a mediated dimension of political gravity in the era of the new seriousness, not as a recognition of actual suffering and its classed, gendered, status-based and generational consequences. It is little more than a riff on ‘I feel you pain’.

And while austerity is frequently romanticised as an ethical emetic for the boom years, the catastrophic consequences of ‘austerity’, including the potential for mass social unrest, cannot be countenanced by those, ironically, who reify it as a dimension of political ‘stability’. For parties committed to remaining within the terms of the IMF-EU ‘bailout’, regardless of their commitment to renegotiation, financing the debt will require a series of further ‘adjustments’ that will not only further depress economic growth, but begin to make life unliveable for many in this society. The end of auction politics, simply, involves the beginning of a more elaborate and costly deception. Fittingly, in one of his last acts in government, Brian Lenihan managed to reveal the truth of this while also patronising the electorate and disparaging public life; if the EU normally complains about being bad-mouthed for populist gain by nationalist politicians, what must they make of a politician who bad-mouths his national population and their entirely conformist public sphere for technocratic advantage?

In her article, Patricia Wood traces a key dimension of the mainstream acceptance of austerity politics in the ways in which the crisis has lurched from being entirely global to being mainly restricted to questions of what was nationally mismanaged, and what we must now manage better. Whereas Brian Cowan never tired of lamenting how our small and nimble island has been cruelly buffetted by forces beyond its control, naturalising the austerity agenda requires an axiomatic pretence that strong government can now bring it all under control. This is the conceit that so exercised my companion in cafe society; while party political corruption, incompetence and clientalist localism have played a devastating role, the role of elite incompetence and clientalist globalism are being massaged out of the narrative. It is not just the politics of the parish pump that need questioning, but also those of the water-cooler, as they are signing us up to the dictates of mutant neoliberalism as a localised antidote to the organism itself.

The second prong of our techno-fork is that constituency that refer to each other, but never to themselves, as the commentariat. Allergic as I am to swingeing statements of media bias, the determination of many journalists to restrict the parameters of debate not only to the tepid pyrotechnics of the campaigns, but to the really-real-reality of ‘bailout’ acceptance, has been remarkable. In part, the strength of this reaction can be accounted for by a latent distaste for Sinn Féin - I take it for granted here that most of our political correspondents do not write much about the ULA - but not only. Fionnan Sheehan’s description of SF’s bailout politics as being scripted by the Tellytubbies, or Harry McGee’s Donal Donovan-inspired dismissal of them as being gifted by Willy Wonka, reveal how deeply the consensus ‘realism’ of technocracy depends on ignoring rafts of readily available evidence on the near-inevitablity of default. Much like Judt, we need do no more than pose the modest request that journalists explore and explain ‘reality’ rather than close it down with such alacrity. Yet not only are the parameters of consensus left mainly intact, but even the mainstream political reliance on a dismissive rhetoric of reality is routinely reproduced in reportage and opinion. Hugh Green’s piece examines further aspects of this constriction, and his critique of the theming of emigration chimes with Audrey Bryan’s analysis of how technocratic governance requires the romanticisation of individual lives, the better to further exploit them.

Strike the techo-fork and you will hear the hum of reform. If there has been one limited way in which Judt’s desire to see questions of the good society debated, it has been in the concerted energy dedicated to questions of political reform. As Jason Walsh argues, many of the current suggestions are interesting and well-targeted, however they mainly assume, to quote Jacques Ranciere, that ‘good democratic government is one capable of controlling the evil quite simply called democratic life’. Mary Gilmartin and Patrick Barry’s articles concentrate on one of the most recent, and egregrious examples of this; fairweather citizen Dermot Desmond’s 10,000 word manifesto for Ireland First, helpfully posted online and promoted by The Irish Times. Desmond’s arrogance, and The Irish Times’s unquestioning facilitation of it, fuse significant dimensions of Technocracy now: the unquestioned power of Capital; the assumption that business success translates into governmental expertise and the deeper assumption that makes about national ‘management’; and the elite assumption that the state and nation are theirs to unmake and make according to pet theories and instrumental desires. Making this argument during the week I was told that a good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from. Fine; search The Irish Times database for 10,000 word vision manifestos from Social Justice Ireland, or UNITE, or even TASC, and we’ll debate that liberal shibboleth again.

Angry Guy in the cafe may not have had Desmond in mind, but his telelogical scream for unelected ‘expertise’ is one that permeates reform proposals, and that in part accounts for the popularity of those Independent economist candidates somewhat amusingly, if misleadingly, grouped as Profit before People. The broad desire for expertise ‘at the highest level’ captures precisely what Ranciere means by hatred of democracy. It is not only that, under such arrangements, the Ahern/Cowen era may well have given us Sean Fitzpatrick in cabinet. The technocratic rationale for expertise, sifted from and purified from ideological debates about what constitutes economic and financial expertise, contributes to a technocratic understanding of the crisis as one of inefficiency and mismanagement, rather than neoliberal misadventure. Future installments in this series return to this question, but for now, stay nimble.

Graphic top Eadaoin O'Sullivan