The Emperor is a Fighter Not a Golfer

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(This article was first published in Crisisjam on politico.ie on 21/1/11. This is an updated version 24/1/11)

Is there anything left to say about the spectacle of the last week? How do you sketch out that place beyond absurdity, the ‘are’ in ‘we are where we are’? Unluckily, others have been here before.

In The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s masterful account of the fall of Haile Sellassie in 1974, he describes how the Dergue – the central committee of the military officers that deposed the monarch – slowly and methodically stripped the court of functions and personnel, like a game of anti-imperial Ker Plunk. Selassie’s court was a place of fantasy and intrigue, where legions of informers, patsies, advisors and handlers jostled for favour and position. As the population starved and the strategy of gradual destabilization kicked in, the fantastical scheming and self-promotion of the court dignitaries intensified. As one of the survivors commented in retrospect, the line had become obscured between real power and ‘the appearance of power, the empty pantomime of ruling, being one’s own dummy, only playing the role, not seeing the world, not hearing it, merely looking into oneself’.

Yes, historical parallels, and especially historical metaphors, can be very dodgy. Cowen, for instance, would never inspire some of the best music of the second half of the twentieth century. But if Haile Sellassie played golf, he would have loved Druid’s Glen. So it evens out. In the aftermath of the scarcely revelatory ‘revelation’ that Brian Cowen plays golf with the vested elite his political energies have been devoted to protecting and compensating, the government treated us to a salutary empty pantomime of ruling. They pretended real hard; that intrigues of court are affairs of state, that it matters which of them briefly plays courtesan to the desires of European banks, that anyone cares as to which of them fixes their officer’s monocle and leads the party faithful over the top. They don’t even need the Dergue; the junta’s end game of ‘gradually creating a sinking emptiness around the Emperor until finally he was left alone in the Palace’ was actually scripted in the – backfiring- strategy of choreographed resignations. Until ‘their patience ran out’, the Greens were equally aware that the play’s the thing.

The interesting thing about this government is that they have long transgressed beyond a situation where the language of political outrage or liberal democratic norms means very much. Since the banking crisis became manifest, and the dense web of neoliberal political-economic interdependencies and affinities was revealed only to better reinforce them, their strategy has seemed to involve accumulating as many scandals, revelations and horror-shows as they can across as many fronts as possible, thus making it impossible to ‘bring them down’ in any conventional way. Their governance has amounted to little more than an extended version of the naked ‘spazzing’ scenes in Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots, where a group of the terminally bored seek their ‘inner idiot’ and see how far they can challenge bourgeois norms. Are they really like this? Did they really do that? What can we say that makes any difference? How much more are we expected to take?

Together let’s take the next steps forward

In essence, Fianna Fail has been trying to reverse the logic of decline specified in Selassie’s court. That is, they are more than happy ticking along with the appearance of power. In a systemic crisis that may be skittering out of control, and where, despite the pretence that ‘we have a plan’, Ireland may well be bankrupt, real power has become a liability. Of course, they do have real power, but it matters how they splice it. Think of someone like Dermot Ahern, a self-styled ‘tough guy’ who focused his real power on proving how tough he could be on blasphemy, and on asylum-seekers warehoused for years in Mosney. In an interview in November 2010, after he announced he was stepping down, he discussed at length the pressure the government was under from the ECB, and how they were ‘bounced into’ the deal. Not that toughness involved resisting this pressure, or that he felt that making society in Ireland pay ruinous terms for upholding the European banking system was actually a problem. Just that he felt pressured, and journalists had been unfair to his reputation as a result. Tellingly, it never even occurred to him to turn this pressure into populist capital, to even run the line that bureaucrats from elsewhere are bullying this great nation. That was saved for later, for remedial work on his character, for questions of appearance.

Ahern is not alone in realizing that political salvage can only involve transforming ‘playing the role, not seeing the world…merely looking into oneself’ into a form of political capital. If we were to take the last week of sonorous rhetoric and hushed leaks about how such and such ‘has done the numbers’ seriously, a parallel with the intrigues of a venal and corrupt Abyssinian court would hardly be controversial. But this was a choreographed performance, distracting attention from the world of ‘real power’ that, like Ahern, they simply have no will, reason or intention to engage. So as Cowen and Martin, in the first leadership contest of the period, busied themselves giving us their blue steel stare, evidence from all corners suggests that the fictive architecture on which the four-year recovery plan depends is crumbling. A report by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph – which got shockingly little mainstream coverage in Ireland – suggested that Anglo Irish and other banks have been ‘cataclysmically’ borrowing tens of billions from the Central Bank through an ‘emergency liquidity assistance programme’. In other words, untold amounts of new debt are being heaped on an already unsustainable debt, and on a public that has been coerced into servicing it. The plan really is that there is no plan, so let’s not talk about it. And just as Ahern manfully kept the pressure to himself until it was personally useful, this explains why the possibilities of debates about altering the interest rate for the IMF-EU ‘bailout’ went untapped, and Sarkozy’s blunt attempt to have a row about the coveted corporate tax rate was ignored. The government simply decided that they have nothing to say, or do, anymore, in relation to a situation they have worked hard to make worse. So they worked to keep the focus on the court.

Despite the bluster, it wasn’t that hard. Like real courtiers, they regard power and its trappings merely as their due. In these conditions, holding onto power is well worth incurring accusations of cynicism, putting the party before the country, and assorted slights on personal character. Selassie’s courtiers described how they knew the game was up when the Palace permitted popular movement, as ‘we could only exist in immobility. The more immobile immobility is, the longer and surer its duration’. Fianna Fail, in turn, knows that their drama of salvation, in a constant news cycle, demands incessant mobility, offering ever-new angles and dimensions to try to erase the last moment with the next. It doesn’t hurt to be accused of clinging onto power when you fundamentally have no other reason for being. They are intimately aware that the political system is and will be severely undermined by a political and economic crisis for which ordinary people are being asked to pick up an impossible cost. As this is a reality that cannot be indefinitely screened, best to do so for as long as you can, through pantomime if necessary. This is ‘not seeing the world, looking into oneself’ as strategy.  Better ridicule than revolution.

Didn’t that Whip fella and Sweary Mary look well on TV?

Beyond the Palace walls, what anybody actually thinks or feels about this is irrelevant. There is probably plenty of truth to the idea that vast swathes of the population were grimly satisfied to see Cowen injected with collegial confidence, as there is plenty of visceral satisfaction to be had from the coming electoral wipeout of FF and the Greens. Cowen’s subsequent attempt at a face on/off political identity will not dilute this. What is not clear, during last week, is why the pantomime was treated like a performance of Wagner’s Ring. Mainstream media, with privileged access to court circles, were careful not to overstep the bounds even in the dying days of what we have started to call, post-Obama, ‘the administration’. The extent to which FF was facilitated in pretending that this mattered, and in overlaying their survivalist pantomime on news rhythms and routines, is problematic. Many of those agencies that should have been helping suck the oxygen from this sinking emptiness have been busy pumping it with hot air.

It is important not to do the full Chomsky on this. The structures of news and of this type of political drama are symbiotic. News programmes are hardly going to spurn becoming central players in the unfolding of the drama given the benefits of hosting various protagonists and flagging the dramatic significance of what they are almost exclusively going to say. The role of the political correspondent is not anyway far from that of the court watcher, charged with reading the world-historical significance of the precise ratio of hectoring to mucus in Cowen’s voice. Moreover, experienced broadcasters certainly offered more than enough rope (two favourite moments from Morning Ireland last week. Cowen: ‘you didn’t see the Greek people blaming their government after the bailout’. Question to Noel Dempsey: ‘so your personal view is that you will agree with everything the Taoiseach wants?’ Dempsey: ‘Yes that’s the way it works in a democracy’). And cynicism hung like a comfortable fug over the whole spectacle.

The point is that, for the most part, mainstream coverage shares Fianna Fail’s comfort with the appearance of power rather than the real. The dramas of appearance fit snugly into the drive of instantaneous coverage, and feedback loops shape the drama’s unfolding. But in Ireland right now we need a far more critical and reflective news agenda. As Maman Poulet points out, the ‘heave’ drama suffocated, among other issues, proper coverage of 437,000 on the live register, the burgeoning impact of the cuts, including the little discussed Universal Social Charge and a vast range of other issues ‘in our communities that don’t form part of what some people decide is national discourse’. It is not just that these require more, sustained coverage. It is that the material and lived impacts of FFantasies could have been the basis on which the pantomime was punctured. Instead, it has been brought down within the fourth wall being punctured. Society in Ireland does not exist in or for this spectacle.

Instead of making these social and political antagonisms in anyway explicit, most coverage fed on the staged antagonisms of the Heave and its accelerated consequences. Initially, this stemmed from broadly accepting the idea that the problem with the Druid Glen golf outing was whether or not there had been some form of impropriety. The ‘impropriety’ of course, is structural: this incident did nothing more than illustrate how Cowen has acted as the caddy to destructive capitalists for years. But the drama of personal character is enormously useful to Cowen, he can only do personality when he is angry, and he is quite happy to fight it out on iterations of his character and integrity. Post-Slurrygate, Cowen’s handlers have realized that if he yells rather than slurs he is likely to garner significant coverage of his ‘new confidence’. As a result, he spent inordinate energies branding himself as a ‘fighter’ not a golfer. While this is all part of the personality politics of post-democracy, inordinate attention was given to the game of shaping shadows on the wall: does Michael Martin look tough now? Is Hanafin a ditherer? Isn’t Cowen at his best when it gets tribal? Did Sweary get that dress in Ikea? (As the new leadership contest began yesterday, this dependence on character analysis, if anything, intensified. On the Marian Finuncane Sunday show, reaction to Brian Lenihan’s press conference focused on how leaderly and confident he sounded. Because no other criteria for discussing him spring to mind).

Well, who cares? Apparently the Irish Times leader writer does. Here’s the editorial after Cowen’s press conference, swollen with admiration for the power of appearance: ‘The Taoiseach played a blinder in his press conference after a 48-hour consultation period with his parliamentary party last evening…His message was courageous, open and democratic. He would break all of the conventional rules, he said, and table a motion of confidence in himself. He hit the right note by stating that his decision to stay on as Taoiseach was in the interests of the country, not the party.’ Well, as long as he hits the right note, grand. The question of whether it is actually in the interests of the country appears not to be a matter of record.

The complicit validation of one-dimensional man extends well into the realm of real power. If anything illustrated the membrane between the appearance of power and the real, it was in discussions of Cowen’s commitment to pass the Finance Bill.  The Bill – which will enact the provisions of the IMF-EU inspired budget – was allowed function primarily as an emblem of Cowen’s determined commitment to public service. You know; I am a fighter, I must win, I must assume multiple portfolios and run naked through empty Ministries roaring ‘L’Etat c’est moi,’ because I have a duty to the Finance Bill.  Not once did I hear Cowen brought back to the bill as a political issue or living document, or to the relevance and nature of the provisions given the already significant deterioration of the projections on which it is based. Its impact is yesterday’s news, and popular mobilization in opposition to it isn’t news at all. (Over the last twenty-four hours, the status of the Finance Bill as the terrain on which the parties get ready to rumble has guaranteed it a mention, but most of the coverage I have witnessed has been procedural, with little substantive debate. Absurdly, the Greens have adapted Cowen’s tactic by pulling out of government while citing their commitment to rush through the bill as evidence of their agonized commitment to ‘the national interest’).

Though unlikely to feature in Mary O Rourke’s election catechism, Fianna Fail are well-versed in postmodernist approaches to history. Cowen was regularly allowed to limit the terms of political discourse in his repeated insistence that it is only a ‘lazy media narrative’ that holds him and his cabinet responsible for ruinous decisions. Cowen clearly loved this phrase, alternating it constantly with talk of ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘lazy mythologies’. It works, relatively, because it suggests that there is a battered, unpopular truth lying beyond a cosy media consensus. Yawn; be it climate change, racism or just about any other socio-political issue, the constant flow of opinions and perspectives provides ample possibilities for embattled interests or careerist commentators to tap what Alberto Toscano describes as ‘the ideological comfort of fighting on the side of the powerful while presenting oneself as a member of a beleagured and courageous minority’. In Cowen’s case it fleshes out the righteous anger and kills airtime. But such postmodern flights of fancy should be no defence for a sturdy inhabitant of ‘the real world’. Forget the catechism; what about a litany of governmental decisions made before and after the bank guarantee that help test this ‘lazy narrative’ against the real?

Ultimately, the pantomime benefitted hugely from the fact that the political lexicon no longer does the work it is supposed to. Cowen, you’ll have heard, did everything for the good of the people, the good of the country, for fairness, and because ‘there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing’. Without properly articulated, antagonistic visions of the good, in a public sphere where different forces struggle over ideas of the common good, he can lay improbable claim to being wild about the good for as long as he likes. It just flattens out as another dimension of character. Within the parameters of capitalist realism, ideas of the ‘good’ only have meaning as reflections on the good intentions of the speaker. In a strange exception to the ‘meritocracy’ the rest of us are encouraged to live in, it’s enough to say  ‘we made mistakes, but I meant well’. Challenge it, and you’re dragged back to righteous debates on character and the terrain of appearance.

Still, some appearances have ceased to matter. While the panto lead to political chaos that popular protest over the current larceny can only wish for, the markets seemed not to mind at all. No wrong signals here.

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Dr Gavan Titley is a lecturer in Media Studies at the School of English, Media and Theatre Studies in National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
 

3 Responses

  1. Pope Epopt

    January 24, 2011 10:57 am

    A very fine piece of writing Gavin. Thank you. The Toscano quotation exactly describes the fall-back position of every consensus politician and meeja mouthpiece in the state.

    While the panto leads to political chaos that popular protest over the current larceny can only wish for, the markets seemed not to mind at all.

    Precisely. The process of contained opposition only stops being a spectacle when we stop paying the rent.

  2. corkoniense

    January 25, 2011 9:11 am

    The Toscano quote is a fantastic description of John Waters, he who rails against “Gobshite Marxism” all the way from Dalkey.