“Equality cannot be wished into being. It does not depend on goodwill but on social conditions.” Alessandro Portelli.
There was a telling moment on RTE’s Prime Time on Tuesday last. Miriam O’Callaghan was steering an entirely male panel of party representatives trying to justify their parties’ positions on the Finance Bill. Pearse Doherty was explaining how cutting the government deficit does not mean taxing low income earners and she went to FG’s Richard Bruton for the last comment. The camera pulled out to reveal all four men and Miriam. Bruton extended his hands and said “I think what this country needs is a credible new government that can put forward a strategy for five years…” Miriam stifled a laugh and looked down in despair. Bruton didn’t even blink. In Bruton’s own terms, he was leaving us in no doubt that ‘credible new government’ is his party’s watchword for the coming election campaign. His utterance was focus-grouped within an inch of its short and meaningless life. Miriam couldn’t convince herself that he was serious.
Since Brian Cowen decided that he was going to lead his party into the next election, and subsequently gave up that leadership within a few days, the election campaign has gone from phoney war to utterly banal. In short, this election campaign is now in performative mode. Over the weekend of the Green’s will they/won’t they panto act, I think I actually heard the political correspondents changing gear. It is performative because it is now the performance of this election ritual that matters, not deliberation over policies. It is certainly not about reflections of class positions. From here on in, expect to hear a lot of talk of constituency breakdowns, quota management and “tireless constituency workers”. Before you know, you’ll be watching images of ballot boxes being upturned and mohair’ed tallynerds coming up for air. In these times of difficulty, the body politic will reach its end game and at the end of the day, we cannot rule anything in or out, so to speak. There’s only one poll that matters of course. Moreover, it is not just the elected representatives that are at this performativity.
Lobbying organisations and ‘research’ institutes are also engaged in this whirl of twonkishness. Earlier in January, Is Feidir Linn made their pre-election position paper available. Among their “key points of criticism of the Four Year government Plan” are words like adjustment, burden and that ever-amorphous group “the better off”. In fact their paper suffers from precisely the same problem that some walked away from the Dublin Claiming Our Future event last year: it is hollowed out of existing social conditions. A quick review of the comments on IFL’s posting of their paper shows the disappointment it holds for some. The paper suggests that the next government must have a “broader medium term strategy which would begin the process of transforming Ireland’s model of development.” It states that “broad public endorsement for such progressive medium term objectives is essential to maintain social solidarity and cohesion during the adjustment period”. A sentence so laden with assumptions about what the public should and should not do serves to highlight the problem with the performance of ‘policy without social conditions’. In short, the mere statement of what we want is not enough. I can no more wish equality, justice or fairness into existence than I can a million euro in my bank account.
Of course, Is Feidir Linn and others are informed by what have come to be known as ‘values’. These are curious things in that we all have them and yet they’re so elusive. Values are what we can nod sagely about when we have nothing political to say in terms of our own access to and use of scarce resources. This is what Is Feidir Linn values for political reform in the coming time: “the issue of ‘Political reform’ can be developed further in parallel with the various civic programmes already proposed by oppostion parties. The aim will be to maintain commitment to this agenda and ensure our particular contribution (equality, participation, sustainability) is reflected.” This peculiar hitching to the opposition parties’ wagon seems out of place for a movement that seeks to build from below. In the Fianna Fail leadership campaign Mary Hanafin spoke openly about values:
“While our policies have evolved over the years as the country has developed and modernised, I believe that our core values are as relevant today as they have always been. These values underlined de Valera’s support for families, Lemass’s commitment to industrial innovation and Lynch’s determination to see Ireland play a strong role on the world stage.”
Irish Times, Jan 26th 2011
These values support families, a commitment to industrial innovation and a determination to see Ireland play a strong role in the world. There’s nothing controversial about any of these ‘values’ because they too are hollowed out. Her admiration for the support of families means that as minister she can ‘warn’ of cuts to social welfare rates. The value of Ireland’s place on the world stage clearly refers to the continued use of Shannon to support illegal wars of occupation in Asia. Like the closing remarks of Bruton on Prime Time, they are rehearsals in the stage play that are enacted in place of actually-existing social conditions. A few weeks back, Hugh Green took down John Waters for his immaterial ‘values talk’:
“For Waters, it doesn’t really matter if, in Ireland alone, there is gross material inequality, half a million unemployed, families depending on food parcels, a health system in collapse: the urgent problem to be addressed, for people suffering as a result, is the re-definition of ‘human desire’ within ‘an absolute framework’.”
The way most elected officials in Ireland and the other smaller bodies revolving in their orbit talk about present social conditions, what we need to do is bring about transformation. We need to get the economy working again, like the way it did when children’s functional literacy declined and housing conditions got worse. Radical reform is what we need apparently but such zeal for reform bears no relationship to how most of us live our lives. The rhetoric of political actors, elected and unelected alike, is not harmless. When a minister talks about rationalisation to back office operations, she means fewer people working in the HSE and doing more work. When a representative from KBC Asset Management talks about further adjustments being necessary, he means that more people need to lose their jobs before more profit can be made.
We know who the “better off” are in Ireland’s economy. They are people who lobby government ministers to extend Section 23 subsidies for the sake of €60 million. Lobbying for their continuation perpetrates an actual and symbolic violence on people’s lives. It is nothing more than the hurried accretion of advantage at a time when the contradictions show beneath the petticoats of capitalism. What kinds of values are these exactly?