Be part of it…or else!
The lo-fi celebratory capitalism of The Gathering - carefully calibrated to win broad appeal by tapping into reservoirs of local pride - comes precisely at a time when its opposite number, disaster capitalism, is busily taking advantage of economic turmoil to ensure that when the dust settles, established power remains unchallenged. By Mark Cullinane and Eoin O'Mahony.
It is appropriate that The Gathering, Fine Gael and Labour's latest marketing and tourism wheeze, sounds like the title of a John Carpenter film. As a horror production of the finest calibre, the initiative serves as a useful fault line to further examine the Plato's cave that is The Current Crisis.
Like the prisoner released from that cave, we are asked to take the shadows of our present reality as genuine experience. Just recently, the Fightin' Irish of Notre Dame and the brave boys of Navy were presented to us as two lost tribes returning home to do battle for our pleasure. The All-Ireland finals were used to show us The Gathering’s power. The county colours were flagged into Croke Park and adopted familiar signs into a spectacle of localism. Shortly, we will be asked to activate seemingly dormant (off the field) community allegiances to present before the teeming hordes waiting to return to the oul' sod, all in the name of The Diaspora.
With Government-sponsored mythologising being cranked up to record levels, it is clear that The Gathering is more than just another tourism initiative. For one, it is the latest example of serving up culture as a function of the state, specifically to meet the needs of global and mobile capital. Long before Whitaker’s technocratic vision, there was a turning of the ship of state to the service of those outside of it. Implicit in this course change is the disturbing and pervasive notion that Ireland, rather than being focused on those resident here, instead exists to serve particular forms of capital formation, tourist expectation, the production of a cultural landscape. It is the equivalent of the plastic-covered sofa in the good room of the house. The people resident here are mostly ciphers through which Ireland is recreated. We all know the drill: Run-off pollution from farm land becomes a problem only when European directives are invoked from afar; a labour force is educated and deployed according to the ever-changing needs of the day's particular captains of industry. The Gathering for us natives is a call to be part of it: cleverly disallowing non-participation by never defining what It is.
With backers of the project comprising a who's who of Irish public life; from state and semi-state bodies, voluntary organisations of various kinds, to an array of sporting organisations, as well as indigenous and international businesses, it appears that there is broad institutional agreement that The Gathering is a Very Good Thing, essential to Our Recovery. In a twist that is part Big Society and part Big Brother, its success or failure, according to organisers, is entirely up to us: it will depend upon our ability to pry open the wallets of the diaspora. In order to win hearts and minds for this grand plan, an aggressive marketing campaign is underway, with every communication medium known to mankind - including direct marketing to every home in the State - employed for the purpose of spreading the Good News (alongside a final demand for household charge payments presumably). Nobody will be spared: with the cooperation of the Department of Education and Skills, fifth and sixth class students in 3,200 primary schools will be deployed to welcome The Diaspora. It's true: marketing is so much easier when you run the country.
And what will our kids be taught? According to the initiative’s website, “Communities throughout Ireland will showcase and share the very best of Irish culture, tradition, business, sport, fighting spirit and the uniquely Irish sense of fun.” Clearly these communities’ job is to showcase only the very best, not the fundamentally unequal nature of our schools, workplaces and social spaces. The fighting spirit is invoked presumably to attract the part of The Diaspora that believes that the donnybrook from the Quiet Man is still tumbling down the village’s street. Furthermore, The Gathering assumes a logic of lost tribes and an unproblematised, essentialised nationality. It supports an understanding of nationality as containable within specific stories of the Irish being white at the same time as being intimately connected to networks of migration. That Irish people went abroad and maintained that unique Irish sense of fun obscures the role played by many in the maintenance of the British imperial project, for example. The logic that The Gathering operates out of is one of homogeneity, particularly about the migrant experience as something playful and classless. We look forward to seeing the rhetorical warmth and inclusiveness of The Gathering in practice: will it, for example, invite the many diasporas inside and outside of Ireland to be part of it? There are Chinese, Nigerian, Filipino people now resident in Ireland, but how are such versions of being Irish referenced in The Gathering? Will the 2,500 or so people still lingering in the moral and material poverty that is direct provision Be Part Of It?
Since the Farmleigh set began composing the recovery myth in earnest in 2009, a drumbeat, taking the form of a generalised fetishisation of 'doing something' over 'simply talking', has become the soundtrack of choice for post-crash Official Ireland; The Gathering is merely the latest wheeze. Central to this has been the rise of the entrepreneur, whose gumption and tenacity in the face of adversity is an example to us all. This narrative is fed to us in a variety of ways, from an increasingly instrumental education system that exhorts us to serve the interests of capital in ever more direct ways, to a regular diet of Government schemes, awards programmes and media content.
And on that issue of media content, as Taoiseach, Enda Kenny is presumably entitled to push initiatives of various kinds, even ones that so transparently serve his Government's chosen narratives and short-term political and economic goals. What is less immediately clear is why the national public service broadcaster, RTÉ, has chosen to engage in such full-throated support of the enterprise. The simulcasting across TV, radio and multiple online platforms of The Gathering launch concert was just the beginning of a partnership that will continue throughout next year. There was a perfectly good reason why the concert (fully paid for by the Glen Dimplex Group) was available globally live on YouTube. In what has become a hallmark of post-crash Ireland, and a continuation of our cravenness to the Big Other, public utterances are increasingly directed not at a local audience but at the various power networks beyond our fair isle’s shore. Take your pick: the Troika, the markets, potential philanthropists, the Chinese middle class (so big now). And so it was again this time: this grand occasion of obfuscation, naturally fronted by national mother Miriam O'Callaghan, was intended for external audiences but not those of us living here.
At least on this occasion, the interludes between the musical performances saw the frantic semaphore which passes for Irish political discourse somewhat dispensed with. Enda Kenny, having had it served up to him on a plate, gladly took the opportunity to restate the carefully-composed recovery myth, speaking of how
“Ireland, and its people, in true Fighting Irish style, with guts and courage and discipline, are fighting back in the face of the economic challenges we face as a country - why wouldn't we?”
Immediately afterwards, a grinning O'Callaghan warmly introduced “another great initiative” from Martin Sheen, who appeared on-screen furiously shaking a begging bowl, with a direct appeal to American businesses to invest in Ireland. This advert was on behalf of ConnectIreland, a Government-backed initiative which pays cash bonuses to companies for jobs created here - a scheme directed at those parts of The Diaspora for whom our extraordinarily generous corporate tax regime isn't enough. That the ensuing football game wasn’t even broadcast on Irish television should be evidence enough that this whole affair, ostensibly about the inclusivity of Irishness, had precious little to do with us.
But just when the USS Fort McHenry had departed Dublin Port, one might have thought that it was safe to come out from behind the sofa and turn on the television again. However, tucked into RTÉ's Autumn schedule is a six-part Primetime series entitled 'The Gathering', which will follow six celebrities who return to their home towns to assist them in their preparations for 2013’s celebration. This will be followed by another globally-streamed spectacular on New Year’s eve, and given RTÉ's status as media partner to The Gathering, it is safe to assume that there is plenty more content to come. License fee payers can look forward to more programming circling around the same communities and studiously avoiding the days on which dole is signed for. Thus, the deeply embedded structural inequalities that the present crises have both revealed and exacerbated are more likely to be unchallenged by the public. And, with our labour - both physical and mental - dedicated towards busily organising and attending cupcake-laden events of various kinds, it seems likely that we will fail to attend to other pressing matters, like the many fundamental problems facing this society. All of this in the 'national interest' and inevitably increasing our commitment to responsibilising recovery myths.
Most insidiously of all, the honeyed words of The Gathering's invitation to get involved mask the scheme's most crucial latent function, which is about co-opting us into an illusory sense of common cause. This lo-fi celebratory capitalism of The Gathering - carefully calibrated to win broad appeal by tapping into reservoirs of local pride - comes precisely at the time when its opposite number, disaster capitalism, is busily taking advantage of the economic turmoil to ensure that when the dust settles, established power remains unchallenged. As long as we're listening to The Gathering's whispered sweet nothings about Irish exceptionalism, our unparalleled impact on the world, and how we really are all in this together, the likelihood of the materialisation of an emancipatory politics that strikes at the core of neoliberal hegemony remains marginal. With this prize in the bag, any benefits which may accrue in terms of increased visitor numbers in 2013 are a mere bonus to an entrenched power elite. Sustaining a semblance of legitimacy for the present course is victory enough.
The essentially diversionary character of the whole enterprise is neatly illustrated by contrasting it with the proposed Constitutional Convention. Those Pollyanna Irish liberals who may have originally seen the convention as the ideal means of setting about repairing a dilapidated republic will have to admit that the reality is different: its remit narrowed to utter irrelevance, its budget miniscule, it makes We The Citizens look truly emancipatory. The Gathering, with its healthy financial and rhetorical commitment from Government and its grand promise of representing “the largest ever citizen engagement programme undertaken in Ireland” much more closely reflects the priorities of the Irish political establishment. It is appropriate that at a time of profound crisis, the biggest citizen engagement programme in the history of the Irish state merely requires us to organise a party. Suitably softened up from years of hearing the hard sell, and ground down by the meaninglessness of big P politics, The Gathering's demand for us all to become entrepreneurial emissaries for the motherland is likely to gain some traction.
Countering it requires politicising every strand of the recovery myth: from the idolisation of small business, to the shrink-wrapped solidarity offered to us by tourism initiatives, to the self-serving idea that the financial crash and the ensuing austerity has somehow brought us to our senses and brought us closer to what really matters - family, locality, culture. Far from being a redemptive process through which the sins of the Celtic Tiger are expunged, the very apex of 'our' ambition is merely to dissect society and economy to the point where a return to the bond markets becomes feasible and equilibrium is restored to Hibernia.
Come on, there's work to be done - Be Part of It!