From NAMA Republic to New Ireland? Fintan O’Toole’s Vision For Change

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Anyone trying to make sense of Ireland’s crisis, and looking for an alternative to the right-wing consensus shared by the three major parties and virtually the entire print media, is most likely to find their starting-point in the writings of Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole’s columns in the Irish Times, his regular appearance on radio and TV, and his two best-selling works on the crisis, ensure that he has a bigger audience than anyone else articulating a left-wing position in Ireland today. The aim of this article is to consider Ship of Fools and Enough is Enough,  with a particular focus on the second book, where O’Toole has set out his constructive proposals for change in the most detail. If the thrust of what I write is critical, this is not to detract from the positive impact that O’Toole has had as a rare voice challenging hysterical groupthink and defending the victims of the crisis from further attacks. Rather, the purpose is to show that even the most radical position currently on offer within the mainstream leaves a good deal to be desired.

The new feudalism

Enough is Enough bears the sub-title How to build a New Republic, pointing towards the central theme of O’Toole’s vision, his emphasis on republican values and republican democracy as a palliative for our current ills. Strictly speaking, this marks a retreat in terms of political thought. The republican tradition which derived from the American and French revolutions bifurcated over the next century into liberalism, which remained loyal to a narrow definition of political democracy that neglected the economic sphere, and socialism, which broadened its understanding of democracy to encompass social and economic rights, placing the right to work and develop one’s capacities on a par with the right to vote and express one’s opinions. Although the two currents could sometimes find common cause against the reactionary right, more often than not they belonged to opposing camps.

O’Toole clearly has more affinity for socialism – at least in its moderate, reformist guise – than for liberalism: Enough is Enough contains detailed proposals for the entrenchment of social rights and rejects any minimalist understanding of democracy. It would be too hasty to dismiss his translation of this agenda into the language of republican democracy as a timid bowdlerization. An argument can certainly be made that this approach simply involves taking one step backwards in order to jump two steps forward. Having previously done everything in their power to obstruct, delay or reverse progress towards universal suffrage and constitutional government, conservative forces in the West managed to seize the banner of democracy during the Cold War, pressing home their advantage after the collapse of the Soviet Union to link socialism of any variety with authoritarian rule. Going back to the language of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century republicanism, the language of Paine and Lincoln, can be an effective counter-ploy.

But too much emphasis on this rhetorical strategy can blunt our critical perspective. This becomes apparent in Ship of Fools as O’Toole seeks to explain the roots of the present crisis. A chapter describing the hubris and misdeeds of Ireland’s wealthy elite is titled “The New Feudalism”. Does O’Toole actually consider boom-time Ireland to have been a throwback to pre-industrial society? Or is the label just a useful shorthand for anti-social egotism and unearned privilege? Obviously the latter, you might have thought. Yet his conclusion actually leans towards the former theory, bizarre as it might seem:

“Only the most irredeemable pessimist would have predicted that the forces that would destroy the Celtic Tiger would be nineteenth-century revenants … a primitive, pre-modern land hunger created the new feudalism in which an elite puffed up the price of land and inflated a fatal property boom … in business, and especially in banking, there remained an anarchic attitude to law and morality, rooted both in a colonial habit of playing games with authority and in a religious culture that saw sex, rather than money, as the currency of sin … the heroic power of denial, the ability to know and not know at the same time, that had been formed by the peculiar circumstances of Irish history, remained remarkably intact.”

 

By any standards, this is a remarkably myopic view. It cannot have escaped O’Toole’s attention that the Irish economic crash developed in tandem with the meltdown of the US financial system which was its immediate cause. As everyone now understands, the crisis in the USA was triggered by the collapse of a property bubble as outlandish as the Irish one, which had a devastating impact on banks whose regulatory framework was every bit as anaemic as its Irish equivalent. If anything, the relationship between political and economic elites in the USA was more brazenly corrupt than it was in Ireland, with the rotation of personnel between Wall Street investment banks and the US Treasury more than a match for the golf outings and dinner dates that linked Anglo Irish to Fianna Fail. To explain the crisis by reference to “the peculiar circumstances of Irish history” is to ignore the general experience of neo-liberal capitalism, which has been characterised by asset-price bubbles, de-regulation of the banking system, and repeated financial crises.

The socialist tradition which emerged from the shell of republicanism has developed a powerful critique of capitalism that simply cannot be found in its parent doctrine. Without drawing on that critical heritage, it is very difficult to make sense of the present crisis. The United States has been a republic throughout its history, and was less encumbered by feudal baggage than any other developed nation. Yet it can boast the sharpest inequalities of wealth to be found in any industrial society. What O’Toole dubs “the New Feudalism” is simply the latest stage of capitalism. The Irish Republic does not find itself in its current predicament because of a failure to become truly modern and shake off the dirt of the past. There is always more than one way to be modern at any given time: Ireland embraced one of the versions of modernity on offer, turbo-charged neo-liberal capitalism, and is now suffering the consequences.

The peculiarities of the Irish

This is not to deny, of course, that the peculiar aspects of Irish history have helped bring us to the current pass. Enough is Enough casts its net further back into Ireland’s past, yet the indictment drawn up by O’Toole is curiously selective. This reflects his aversion to “republicanism” in its particular Irish sense, a militant strain of Irish nationalism that considers the partition of Ireland to have been an illegitimate act and holds Britain responsible for many if not all of the nation’s ills. While this tradition certainly deserves critical scrutiny, O’Toole is much too keen to send the baby packing along with its bathwater.

Accounting for the division of the island, he argues that “mainstream Irish nationalism paid little attention to Ulster Protestant identity … that, in turn, made partition virtually inevitable.” The first statement is certainly true: the main currents of Irish nationalism regressed from the inclusive civic nationalism of the United Irishman over the course of the nineteenth century and failed to build bridges to Protestant Ulster. But there is far more to the story of partition than that. The interventions of the British political elite – especially its Conservative wing – had as much to do with the eventual outcome as the internal divisions between Irish nationalism and unionism. Had the balance of power differed, O’Toole might now be writing that “mainstream Ulster unionism paid little attention to Irish Catholic identity … that, in turn, made it virtually inevitable that Protestant Ulster would be incorporated into an independent Irish state on unfavourable terms.”

Accounting for the failure of the 26-county state created by the partition settlement to develop a true republican democracy, O’Toole is again oddly one-sided. The continued presence of the IRA in its various forms is offered as one explanation:

“The existence throughout the history of the state of a secret and self-appointed cabal, accountable to no one but itself yet claiming to act on behalf of the Irish Republic, has tended to discredit the idea of republicanism … when a secret body claims to be ‘the Government of Ireland’, as the IRA Army Council always did, the whole notion of popular sovereignty is thrown into comic absurdity. When it then goes on to claim the right to use extreme violence on behalf of the people, that notion is fouled with blood and madness.”

 

The weaker form of anti-partitionist nationalism espoused by such figures as Charles Haughey is also deemed worthy of blame, for helping to “create the feeling that the Irish state was a temporary arrangement, at best a mere way-station on the road to the true Republic of a United Ireland that would emerge at some time in the future … the ambivalence of much of the political class about the state it governed added to the feeling that a real republic was, in a sense, an impossible concept, relegated to the realm of aspirations, and therefore beyond the reach of practical politics.”

Yet there is a much more obvious candidate that is entirely absent from O’Toole’s account: the Anglo-Irish Treaty and what stood behind it. At heart the Treaty was based on a pragmatic alliance between the most conservative sections of the Irish nationalist movement and the least obdurate members of the British political class, and was meant to ensure that the social order which had developed under British rule would be preserved intact. The outcome of the Civil War was not simply a triumph of moderate over radical nationalism: the Free State took care to stifle militancy among the lower classes, at gun-point if necessary, while it was routing the quixotic republicans who opposed the Treaty. After the Civil War, De Valera could make his peace with the substance of the new order easily enough. His mystical, fundamentally conservative brand of nationalism rejected the symbolic trappings of the Treaty while ignoring its social content.

All of this had a far greater impact on the character of the new state than the antics of the rump IRA, or the opportunistic “Four Green Fields” rhetoric wheeled out by Fianna Fail chieftains from Dev to Haughey. O’Toole refers repeatedly to the Democratic Programme adopted by the First Dáil as a template for what Ireland should have become after independence. It was the balance of class forces established in the 1920s, and Fianna Fail’s speedy accommodation to that balance, that ensured the idealistic vision of the Democratic Programme would be snuffed out.

A democratic economy

Not that the Programme was a flawless document in itself. Although O’Toole is entitled to measure the social performance of the Irish state against pledges made at the height of the independence struggle, it would also be useful for him to recall the terse account of its genesis offered by Sean O’Faolain:

“It was a slight document, consisting of less than five pages of print, in Irish and in English, and it was read, listened to and discussed for precisely twenty minutes and fifty seconds, and then buried forever. More than that, the original draft had been so watered down that it no longer contained such declarations as that ‘it shall be the purpose of the Government to encourage the organisation of the people into Trades Unions and co-operative societies with a view to the control and administration of industries by the workers’; or, that ‘no private property is good as against the public right of the nation’.”

 

O’Faolain points us towards a further splintering of political traditions, after the break between socialism and its republican parent. When socialists promoted a broader concept of democracy that took account of economic life, they generally understood that concept in two ways. The “minimalist” version of economic democracy aimed to secure rights to employment, housing, education, health care and other vital services for all citizens. That was ambitious enough in itself, but it fell a long way short of the maximalist objective, which was to bring the economic resources of society under democratic control.

For many years the distinction between these currents was obscured by the phony rhetoric of the Eastern bloc, which claimed to have realised the maximalist vision yet gave its working classes no say whatsoever in economic affairs. Yet the call for a truly democratic economy resurfaced during the class struggles which marked Western Europe in the 1970s. Various attempts to make it a reality, from the factory councils of northern Italy to the Meidner Plan adopted by the Swedish social democrats, were beaten back in the course of a general right-wing offensive over the following decades. Now that we have seen the perils of leaving the main economic levers in the hands of private capital, those endeavours merit fresh consideration. O’Toole does not explore this dimension at all: he suggests that “no-one should be allowed to serve on the boards of more than three publicly quoted companies” and calls for a more robust structure of corporate law, but appears to take it for granted that the lion’s share of industry and finance will remain in private hands. At a time when circumstances have obliged the Irish state to assume responsibility for much of its banking sector, this failure to broaden the scope of republican democracy is perhaps the most disappointing lacuna of O’Toole’s programme.

Constituencies for change

That said, his proposals for economic reform certainly present a lively and radical challenge to the status quo in Ireland. The closing chapters of Enough is Enough can be read as a devastating indictment of the Irish Labour Party, although its name is never mentioned: they show the difference between a real social-democratic programme, adapted for Irish conditions, and the pitiful ambitions of that party – even when it finds itself out of government. There can be no doubt that O’Toole’s agenda, if implemented, would be a huge advance on the whole trend of social policy in this state since independence, enriching the lives of countless people. All the more reason, then, to ask if the forces can be assembled to support it.

As he brings Enough is Enough to a conclusion, O’Toole argues that “the political culture itself has to change radically, not least through an end to the tribal contest between two virtually identical centre-right populist parties”, for “a genuine clash of ideas and ideologies is necessary to give politics an edge”. His call for a realignment along left-right lines would be more effective if it was accompanied by a brief sketch of the Irish social structure, identifying the constituencies that could be assembled behind a left-wing project. Political parties, trade unions and other social organisations will contend in vain against the old culture of Irish politics if there are simply not enough people with a hunger for change.

Most commentators assure us ad nauseam that Ireland contains a middle-class majority whose affluence renders them immune to any programme of radical reform. These claims are made without the least attempt to back them up with hard statistical data, or even to specify who belongs to the middle class. O’Toole does not tackle this lazy pop-sociology head-on, which is a pity, as his chapter on education hints at an effective response. Discussing unequal access to third-level institutions, he refers to an especially disadvantaged group, “what might be called the lower middle class – clerical and office workers, minor central and local government officials, sales people and retail workers, child-care workers”, who find themselves “caught in the middle – too well-off to qualify for grants and too poor to be able to afford to send their kids to college without grants”. This could have been fleshed out to establish a picture of a lower-middle / upper-working class which might well be persuaded to ally itself with manual workers by a left-wing movement with the correct approach. Of course, it is much easier to examine sociological data and assign people to different classes on paper than it is to persuade them to act politically on the basis of their class position. But the first task is essential if the second is to have any hope of reaching its target.

As well as the positive force to be assembled behind a programme for social reform, we must reckon with the negative resistance of those who benefit from the status quo. Most of the proposals made by O’Toole have been implemented in some shape or form by European social-democratic parties over the past century. Yet the bulk of that progress was made during a period of history very different from the present one, the three decades following the Second World War when the threat of Communism gave western capitalism a powerful spur to reform itself and improve the social environment of its working classes. Blissfully untroubled by the fear of revolution, today’s European bourgeoisie shows no sign of contemplating such generosity: its members are hell-bent on using the global crisis to hack their way through what remains of the post-war welfare state. The Irish elite certainly have their eyes fixed on that prize, clueless as they may be in every other respect.

The Red Flag, David Priestland’s useful new history of Communism, includes a remark from the Austrian intellectual Karl Kraus that speaks very much to the present, although it was delivered when Lenin was still alive:

“Communism is in reality nothing but the antithesis of a particular ideology that is both thoroughly harmful and corrosive … to hell with its practical importance: but may God at least preserve it for us as a never-ending menace to those people who own big estates and who, in order to hang on to them, are prepared to dispatch humanity into battle, to abandon it to starvation for the sake of patriotic honour. May God preserve Communism so that the evil brood of its enemies may be prevented from becoming more bare-faced still, so that the gang of profiteers … shall have their sleep disturbed by a few pangs of anxiety.”

 

It may not be until the spectre of revolution begins to show its face again, causing our own profiteers a few “pangs of anxiety”, that space for reform opens up once more. In the meantime, anyone who finds O’Toole’s vision of a new Ireland enticing should be ready for a fight if our NAMA republic is to edge itself closer to the modest vision of the Democratic Programme.

 

5 Responses

  1. William Wall

    May 19, 2011 9:21 am

    I love that Kraus quote. You hear the same idea echoed by so many writers.

    This is a really fine dissection of the book. Ultimately, I think FOT’s heart and head are in the right place but I think he bottled it when it came to a democratic programme (to coin a phrase). I have the feeling that at the back of his mind was the idea that the book could act as a persuader to people in the middle ground who might be encouraged to vote left if the left looked relatively toothless. Unfortunately that left the book toothless too.

  2. Catherine Osborn

    May 19, 2011 3:14 pm

    I believe I once stood next to a font and promised – my atheism notwithstanding – to protect this writer from the devil and all his pomps.
    As a godparent, I’m a washout, for I’ve barely seen Daniel in the last two decades.
    But Daniel Finn’s writing shines in a way that could protect me, in my fast-approaching dotage, from the real evils that bedevil our society.
    The role of American and British neoliberalism in Ireland’s wild ride from poverty to boom and back again deserves the emphasis Daniel gives it. And it’s curious that a writer as sharp, and as conscientious, as O’Toole could fail to place the Irish disaster firmly within this context.
    Thank you, Daniel.

  3. Tom Edminster

    May 19, 2011 5:21 pm

    I am grateful to become aquainted with a richer left Irish culture, with the appearance of Irish Left Review…AND …this book review makes me wish to know more about the sources of resistance to capitalism, neoliberalism and sectarianism in Ireland.
    The book reviewer illuminates so much AND the comment by the “god mother” is so affirmative and touching.
    As a man of Irish American heritage with strong socialist and republican sympathies, I was able to speak of my own mother who married a passionate anti capitalist (and ex CP member), in front of my own godmother, a good liberal but quite traditional Catholic… and Irish..
    I want to now read Fintan O’Toole—and travel again to Ireland. I have not been since 1978–although I did take a class as an undergraduate from Seamus O’Tuathail, former editor of the United Irishman—in the same period as sectarian (inter repbulican) violence took his comrade Billy McMillan from us….
    thank you Irish Left Review, for your scope. Thank you Daniel Finn for your review. And more. Slante!

  4. CMK

    May 20, 2011 11:22 am

    This is a fine review and captures the feelings of dissatisfaction one gets from reading O’Toole’s works. He’s analgous to a doctor who can expertly diagnose the disease, but refuses to prescribe specific treatments. It’s a condition endemic among the Irish ‘progressive’ centre-left who still, apparently and despite mounting evidence to the contrary, believe the ‘Labour’ Party are part of the solution.

    When you explicitly rule out in advance, as O’Toole does, radical socialist change as ‘unrealistic’ and possibly dangerous your analysis will ultimately, given the current direction of circumstances, descend into the incoherence immanent in trying to reconcile desires for a ‘better, fairer way’ with not confronting, through strikes and concerted resistance, a capitalist class who are keenly aware that they have a once in a era opportunity to decisively reverse the economic advances of workers.

    O’Toole, the ‘progressives’ and the union leadership don’t seem to realise that their boat has sailed, that if they had gone beyond token resistance in late 2009/early 2010 they might still have a chance to influence events. Marches, speeches, polemics like the one’s reviewed here are diminishing in importance and will soon seem superflous as more robust developments emerge. It’ll be interesting to see how Fintan’s analysis responds to more concerted resistance. Will he, possibly from the Editor’s chair of the Irish Times, attack resistance, such as civil disobedience, to water charges, the property tax and the compulsory universal health insurance?