Getting beyond recrimination to a creative society

Labour Party President, Michael D Higgins, officially opened the Larkin Hedge School on Friday 6 May and spoke about how the creative society can move us forward beyond recrimination for collapse to an innovative economy.

The future form of the economy to be envisaged as an alternative successor to our present crisis should not be born of the politics of fear. Indeed, if the history of economic crises tells us anything, it is that we should avoid turning a recession into a depression.

The world that it is possible and necessary to now remake is a challenge that should be embraced not just by self-proclaimed progressives, but rather by all citizens, including those who value the best of tradition, of local and practical wisdom, of the power of imagination. This challenge is to regain peaceful, responsible, inclusive lives after the ruins of market extremism and the cultural legacy of an individualism that eschewed any socially based morality of solidarity or of intergenerational justice.

In his seminal Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, James C Scott writes of the rejection of indigenous wisdom, and the destructive consequences of those who seek to impose what is superficially modern, or apparently more productive, in the short term without care for the inherited wisdom of knowledge systems, technical capacities, or the particular complexities to which a policy is directed.

What Ireland now faces cannot be reduced to the mere technical or managerial. There are no simple incremental adjustments that would deal with the scale of what is needed to break with what has failed: the collapsed market extremism, the barren individualism, the destruction of the public world, the retreat from interdependency. Providing a political vision for an alternative is the most serious and unavoidable challenge.

It is not only speculative property values that are toxic in our present circumstance. The assumptions that are not challenged by our scholarship betray the role of intellectuals. It is the silence of intellectuals at these times that keeps bogus inevitabilities in place. As a result a false expertise constitutes the most toxic populism of our time.

When one reviews the media and the work published in Ireland since the foundation of the State - while allowing for that which was excluded by state and institutional censorship, ignorance, and bigotry for so long - there have been few serious engagements with the dark predictions of that great prophet of future misery based on bureaucracy Max Weber.

The iron cage he envisaged, of rationality taken to excess as bureaucracy, when he wrote "not summer's bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally' has not been taken as the warning it constituted.

Such neglect of the tyranny of bureaucratic rules explains, perhaps, why it is that in responding to our present public finance difficulties, proposals opposing social transfers to the poor have taken precedence over the irrationality of bureaucracy. That the 'cutting of social welfare' debate was initiated by a speculative banker who had done incredible damage to the reputation abroad of this and future Irish generations says much in itself.

Yet, despite Max Weber's prognosis as to how rationality would become, in its ill-defined excess, a tyrannical irrationality, similar policies presented in the name of rationality are still being peddled by some out-of-date economic theorists at the heart of development studies.

The old mantra that it is better to be exploited by capitalism than to not be exploited at all is still accepted in overt, or covert, manner by very many senior figures in social sciences in the academy in Ireland.

The great opportunity we now have is one of responding to our own and the global crisis, of breaking away, in an original manner, in terms of scholarship in Ireland.

We have the challenge and opportunity of creating a new, open system of knowledge and theoretical space. To do this we can draw on a diversity of sources - the evidence of the practical: on excellence, the inherited and anticipated wisdoms of a highly educated generation whom the old economic models have failed.

The creative society is the essential basis of any innovative economy. The creative society, furthermore, has the advantage of being a powerful tool for inclusive citizenship, for example, by not excluding the unemployed from full participation in society simply because of their bearing the consequences of this economy that has failed them through unemployment and its related poverty.

Within the discourse of the creative society it is essential that we accept that the cultural space is wider than the economic space; that its rights are far more extensive; and that they define the democratic significance of the public space. The provision for culture is a basic provision, as well as being intergenerational too in its claims for justice. However, it is from this space too that the vibrant and innovative cultural activities emerge - film, music, dance, visual art, poetry, drama, television. These are, above all else, citizen achievements drawn from the rich possibilities of memory and imagination. That they create economic benefits, of courser, is also valuable. Globally and at European level, it is at this area that employment, and indeed economic growth itself, is increasing.

The potential for employment is immense. Already many in our shared planet know of Irish writers, actors, artists, poets and performers. That they now also know the excesses of those gambler/banker insatiates, who have done so much economic and reputational damage to this and future generations, is perhaps something for which we should be grateful. That the reputation of Irish artists - built and drawn from talent and genius, and hard sacrifices too, or the myriad of other artists- still stands as a proud shield at these times.

It would be an act of philistine homage to what has failed to cut public spending and provision for inclusion of citizens in this area of arts and culture. It simply makes no economic sense in either the medium or long-term. Such cuts, would, of course, damage the very basis of citizenship itself.

Now is the time for recognising, respecting, and making investment in creativity, for harnessing the best of imagination and tradition. The proof is there that the generation of activity that is life affirming, ecologically the most sustainable, easily regionalised, and with an established economic multiplier that is greater than any other source of income, can be done. It is not a time for cutting the basis of the creative society, a society we need, for among other purposes, generating innovative forms of the economy.

A right of centre government took its share of the yield from the revenues of an artificial economy. 'Individualism is best, Inequality is a useful incentive,' the leader of the now happily defunct PD party crowed. 'Party on!' advised their more vulgar acolyte in Fianna Fáil, before his departure to give lectures against equality in Europe from the safety of his gifted Commissionership. The public rightly asks if we heard the last of all this, or are we now being asked to make sacrifices so as to have it all over again. All of this must be faced.

None of what I have described as alternative is a proposal for elitism. By its very definition a democratic cultural policy has inclusion at its heart. We need to build up our neglected areas of social protection, not submit social welfare provision to a slash and burn response to pay for the actions of a small elite.

Beyond the present crisis something totally new must be brought into being; a new vision of economy, policy and society is needed, based on a better, more open, scholarship, a richer and a more inclusive discourse that has as its basis the liberating promise of creativity. We should embrace the new challenges, not be mired in the politics of fear, or, worst of all, slyly snared into a war among the poorest, intimidated by the slash and burn proposals of those who cling to what has failed us, at home and abroad.


Michael D Higgins is Labour Party President, former Statutory Lecturer in Political Science and Sociology at NUIG, and is currently Adjunct Professor at Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUIG.