Yesterday’s editorials of The Irish Times and The Irish Examiner are politically instructive, that is to say, they illustrate a situation in which politics cannot take place. The differences in tone tell us much about their minimal market/political differentiation. The crowing populism of the Examiner still imagines that it hears the Fine Gael Ard Fheis thrilling to the threats of Liam Cosgrave, and underlines why the alternative to the blob-like properties of Fianna Fail is not Fine Gael (not just because they are the same party, but because FG statism will enthusiastically provide the forms of control and surveillance that neoliberal societies require).
The Irish Times piece is more interesting, despite being written by a failed Progressive Democract long divorced from any such thrilling gatherings of the faithful. Long before Donald Rumsfeld’s people stated it, Michel De Certeau had noted the performative power of ‘recited truths’; interpretations that take on an immanent role in telling social and political stories, partial and vested perspectives that are recited until they recede into the background as first principles, narrative starting points, or points of obvious entry. There is misrepresentation in the editorial (that public sector workers are nearly all well-paid, secure, and unwilling to contribute anything), but this is not so much the point as the coordinates for the ‘economic reality’ in which we find ourselves. These coordinates are obvious:
(1) While we know who is to blame, the blame game is redundant, and analysis (blame) cannot have any impact on the ‘tough fiscal correction’ which must take place. Thus culpability hides in plain sight. This is the amnesiac, continuous present of not just the Celtic Tiger, but as Fredric Jameson among others have argued, the historyless present of postmodernism, a now-ness revelling in its uniqueness and only called back to time by the shadow of some future catastrophe. Fintan O’Toole argued a few weeks ago, after the Lisbon vote, that we had become ‘the plastic people’. A central dimension of this plasticity was our collusion in how a gaping hole in the realities and mechanics of Irish oligarchy was salved by horribly obvious, and effective, divide and conquer tactics. Partly this can be blamed on the velocity of revelation; the bestseller lists are now dominated by books making some sense of the cascade of banking and political revelations of last spring. But they already belong to the past, and analysis and even mere recall is seen as at best superfluous, at worst distracting. So, abstract and all as it sounds, there is a real political problem here with time, and the version of time that both symbolises and manifests the difficulties of thinking politically now. Perhaps we need to consider the question of political time discussed by Wendy Brown in her essay on ‘Critique and Timeliness’, on the need to contest commonsense of ideas of ‘when the time is right’:
‘To insist on the value of untimely political critique is not, then, to refuse the problem of time or timing in politics but rather to contest settled accounts of what time it is, what the times are, and what political tempo and temporality we should hew to in political life. Untimeliness deployed as an effective intellectual and political strategy, far from being a gesture of indifference to time, is a bid to reset time’.
(2) Striking solves nothing, it’s a throw-back, and sows seeds of division: While withdrawing labour is as relevant as it has ever been, it has been successfully cast as a piece of renegade nostalgia in an era whose ur-values are communication, flexibility and motivation. It also, of course, assumes not only a reality of togetherness and unity that is only unsettled by sectoral interests, but, a priori, the political value of unity. (and a horror of conflict). That is to say, it is the insistence that politics is about consensualism, that consensualism stems from a general recognition that equality has been more or less achieved, and that therefore agonism is not only ‘unhelpful’ in a managerial era, but a form of false consciousness. Note the tone of Mary Harney and others when they congratulate themselves on respecting the right to strike, before describing it as unhelpful; the soothing obstructionism of senior managers in a call centre? Note, in the Irish Times editorial, the line that describes trade union activism as ‘the unattractive face of mé féinisim’ – that is to say, it is the general and the particular past, the useless past turbulence of Fordism married – in that one phrase – to a past Ireland we would rather forget.
(3) We must think of the national interest and not shame ourselves in the world market. What has not been properly grasped in Irish public debate, probably because at some level it is unthinkable in that kind of debate, is that we effectively live in a post-democracy, and this state is perfectly captured in the fusion of a disciplining ‘national interest’ and the strangely globalised cultural Catholicism of not shaming ourselves in the eyes of Capital. It is a commonplace in economic commentaries that the key decisions that have been made have been made by relentlessly second-guessing bond holders, international credit agencies, and the molesting, invisible hand of the international market. Rather like the theatre of opposing the invasion of Iraq, we are asked to conduct ourselves as expected through the theatre of ‘debating’ NAMA and other political economic options. It is not that the ‘market’ is panoptical, but rather that we are encouraged to internalize a synoptical reflex. The state is an ‘enterprise’ that needs forms of collectivized fiction, and these reflect powerful individuated requirements – to be motivated, and to see this chaos as an opportunity for personal growth. The schtick about national interest is transparently false, but in neoliberal governance it does not have to be ideologically credible, merely efficient for a particular period of time. I have no idea how many people agree with this rallying cry beyond its appeal as an affective crutch. But it would be no mystery if it provided some solace in a country that aggressively celebrated individualisation as a form of personal and national arrival. If reactionary collectivism works, however partially, is it also because there have been so few visions of collective transformation available in Ireland, or elsewhere?
So where does this leave us?
I am not convinced by the rejoinder – to the deliberate polarising of public and private sectors – that this is strike action for all workers, as I don’t blame people for not accepting that (and nor has there been meaningful support for, say, Waterford Crystal workers, or from the academic staff in my university for the ‘flexibilised’ canteen staff). What is more relevant is that these strikes, limited in efficacy as they might be, are one step towards the disruption and agonism that is needed to begin to contest the new recited truths being enshrined.
Therefore they could be, to draw on Fintan O’Toole’s conclusion in his excellent Ship of Fools, a first step in re-defining this as political conflict in the realisation that ‘economic stability’ – or justice – can only result from political transformation in Ireland. But that leads to the tough questions – what politics, and what forms and modes of transformation?
No answers in this article, but that’s the debate we can have. What remains are a few notes in the general direction:
I think – in their different ways – Alain Badiou and David Harvey are right to describe neoliberalism as a Restoration, that is, as an intensified one-way class war, “…a political project to re-establish conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.” Leaving aside the admitted difficulties here with the category of class, their point underlines that the oligarchy that has re-constituted itself so successfully in Ireland over the last year is a symptom of wider, systemic problems.
One of these, if we follow their idea of one-sided class war, is the difficulties inherent in opposing a form of governance that is dedicated to elite economic advantage while having ingested and colonised most forms of oppositional language. As Wendy Brown, once again, points out, neoliberal governance has re-fashioned democratic language and rhetoric at precisely the moment in which democratic substance is voided. In the face of this, ‘old-left’ theorisations of ideology, and probably hegemony are weak. It is true that there is something puzzling – and it is this that has some people dusting off ideas of false consciousness – in the ways in which the mediated ‘person on the street’ so beloved of RTÉ reporting has internalised the public/private split. Instead of being used to draw attention to the dehumanising – and Richard Sennett is correct, corrosive – consequences of flexibilisation and precarité, the security of public sector workers is used to demand more insecurity. Similarly, the instrumentalisation of crisis to lay people off, demand more work for less, and so forth, is used not to contest this exploitation, but to demand more of the same.
An interview with an Irish teacher working in the UK in The Irish Times a few weeks ago epitomised this; he proudly described his 50-60 hour working weeks, the constant form-filling, surveillance, corporatised demands on his time and private life, the barriers to career advancement and incremental pay, and then used this to criticize the nanny-state security of Irish teachers. Sure, people re-trench, survive, find pride and meaning where they can, but if there is not a critical opening in this very ambivalent form of comparative degradation, where is there one?
By the by, and this needs another discussion thread, but this opening will not be found in ‘heritage-left’ movements. Strange fruit, neoliberal stalinism; ‘targets’ for all, forced conformity in the name of liberation, sacrifice now for future deliverance. Again, for shorthand in this debate, writers as opposed to each other recently as Alain Badiou (The Meaning of Sarkozy) and Tony Judt (Reappraisals) are surely right when they argue that traditional left forms can neither do justice to what we could see as the new-ness, and old-ness, of neoliberalism.
It is this combination of old-ness (systemic inequality and exploitation) and new-ness -(a plastic, fungible post-ideological form of managerial governance) that is so difficult to combat.
The strikes illustrate this; these are strikes for the status quo, ranged against a government that can call on these powerful discourses of change and adaptation as a mode of marginalisation. As Mark Fisher points out in Capitalist Realism – and without taking from the core, justified issues at stake right now – ‘calls for inflexibility and centralisation, are, to say the least, not likely to be very galvanising’. I think this is one reason why the public/private split has traction beyond its surface, media attractiveness; even if the worlds of people who work in these sectors are not magically divided by some form of wall – as media commentary would suggest – there is little in the political moment of public sector resistance for people to rally around.
Fisher continues that “it is important to contest capitalism’s appropriation of the ‘new’ but to reclaim the ‘new’ can’t be a matter of adapting to the conditions in which we find ourselves – we’ve done that rather too well, and ‘successful adaptation’s the strategy of managerialism par excellence”. In other words, to escape the accusation of ‘intransigence’, the public sector message has also been to advertise our flexibility. This may be important in strategic respects, but it does little to dent the plastic imaginary of the ‘real world’, or to make unsettling political contestation possible. The unquestioning acceptance of ‘reform’ is also defeating; aren’t there other institutions in this state that need, at the very minimum, ‘reform’?
So how to turn TINA? To contest not only the argument that There Is No Alternative, but to find fissures in the insistent ontology that this is the shape of the everlasting now?
Dr. Gavan Titley is a lecturer in Media Studies at the School of English, Media and Theatre Studies in National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
Photo taken from the Indymedia article Reports from Cork of the General Strike.
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