Fintan O’Toole’s Own Cultural Revolution

Fintan O’Toole.  Enough Is Enough: How to Build a New Republic.  Faber.  £12.99.

Suppose you were swept to power on the back of a massive popular vote — say something like 80%, the kind of number that usually has the USA and its client states jumping up and down and calling you a leftist narco-terrorist.  It is now the morning after the week long celebration in which you toured Ireland thanking the people for placing their trust in you and promising that you would never let them down.  Today, you issue a set of practical proposals.  What would they be?  Nationalise the banks properly (not much left to nationalise), renegotiate a Norwegian or Venezuelan style contract for oil and gas, cap salaries, create a programme of public works, reorganise the democratic system to make it actually democratic, change the taxation regime to provide better redistribution, provide a proper public health system, fund the education system properly, renegotiate senior debt in the banks and so on.  Add in a number of fixes that fit the moment — debt forgiveness for mortgage holders, perhaps?

It’s not exactly a revolution, yet it’s a similar programme to those underway in, say, Bolivia, Venezuela or Nepal, with adjustments for the relative wealth of the populations.  Chavez’s greatest achievements are in public health and education, redistribution of wealth and reorganisation of the democratic system so as to empower the powerless.  Nobody is talking about storming the Winter Palace (or what it stands for), because the Winter Palace is gone.  As Foucault pointed out, power is not located in a single place anymore, and it mainly reveals itself in the production of what he called ‘rituals of truth’.  That Chavez is becoming a dictator is one of those ‘truths’, another is that ‘capitalism is all there is, get used to it’, yet another is that we can all invest in our dodgy pension companies and come out with enough money to retire to the Bahamas.  This kind of ‘truth’ has, in our case, led to the bank bail-out and the social welfare cuts, to name but a few consequences.  The greatest challenge facing the left in this century is combating these ‘rituals of truth’.

You, elected on your landslide, must begin with your own truth.  But where to start?

The dilemma you face is captured nicely in a paragraph of a recent New Left Review essay by Slavoy Zizek.  Writing about Morales and Chavez and the Maoist government in Nepal, he said:

Their situation is ‘objectively’ hopeless: the whole drift of history is basically against them, they cannot rely on any ‘objective tendencies’ pushing in their way, all they can do is to improvise, do what they can in a desperate situation.  But, nonetheless, does this not give them a unique freedom?  And are we — today’s left — not all in exactly the same situation?

There is, of course, something admirable in ‘doing what we can in a desperate situation’, but it may not live up to our hopes and dreams.  Lenin faced the same dilemma when he realized, late in his life, that there would never be a world socialist revolution and that the USSR could not survive in a world so hostile to the very idea of a communist state.  Castro, one imagines, has confronted the same bitter sense of isolation.  What would the history of socialism be if the capitalist states had adopted a live and let live approach?

But the tail-end of Zizek’s remark is fascinating too.  Having removed the old Marxist argument that the tendency of history favoured a proletarian revolution and having declared that the leftist leaders’ situation is ‘objectively’ hopeless, he then turns that ‘objectively’ on its head.  ‘Nonetheless does this not give them a unique freedom?’  Freedom to do what?  Freedom to invent their own way.  Freedom to be new.  Freedom to be flexible.  We too, as Zizek says, are ‘all in exactly the same situation’.

Fintan O’Toole is one of a handful of brave Irish journalists who have gone against the great tide of neoliberalism that washed in over this country from the 1980s onwards and which the Progressive Democrats rode into the ground.  He was fortunate to work for a newspaper that owed no allegiance to any press barons, although, since the arrival of ex-PD Geraldine Kennedy, he found himself working in an office that syndicated the likes of Charles Krauthammer, cheerleader for USA imperialism and George Bush apologist.  He has stood against the progressive degradation of all our national institutions, our public assets, our rights as citizens.  Not everyone on the left has agreed with the stands he’s taken — the Lisbon Treaty vote is one example, his analysis of the housing problem another.  Nevertheless, even when we have disagreed with him we have recognised a thoughtful intelligent man struggling to understand the same issues we struggled with ourselves.  In recent years he has become, for many, one of a handful of voices of good sense against the so-called ‘common sense’ of our political masters and their media monkeys.  His Ship of Fools anatomised the jobbery, corruption and stupidity of our political class, a valuable contribution to public debate in an accessible style — and, coincidentally, hugely popular.  In this book he makes the synchrony of interests of the Fianna Fáil party and those of the banks, the ‘toxic intertwining of interests’, as he calls it, central to his call for a new kind of politics.  ‘A mere change of government’, he argues, will not create a new politics, all that will happen is that ‘a clapped out populist right-of-centre party’ will be replaced by ‘a fresher hungrier right-of-centre populist party’.

Now he takes a further brave step, one not often undertaken by critics of the system, presenting us with his programme for ‘how to build a new republic’.  If Fintan O’Toole were elected tomorrow (there is a Facebook page that claims if it can get 100,000 signatures he will run for Mayor of Dublin) this is the programme we would be reading about.  What does it amount to?  As Zizek might have it, he is improvising, doing what he can in a desperate situation.  What will he do with his unique freedom?

The book is divided into two section: Five Myths and Five Decencies.  The first part provides O’Toole’s analysis of what is wrong, not just with the economy, but with Irish society in general.  More accurately, it is his reflection on how the ills of Irish society — the ‘five underlying truths of Irish politics’ — have screwed up the economy and politics — the myths of The Republic, of Representation, of Parliamentary Democracy, of Charity, and of Wealth.  The second part — the Five Decencies — is a call for a return to the Republic, one that Wolfe Tone or James Connolly would have been proud of.  Inevitably it is the weaker of the two sections.

O’Toole forensically dissects each of the five myths.  We have never had a republic by any acceptable definition.  What we’ve had instead is a mixture of political corruption and conservatism that paid scant attention to the famous republican triplet of liberty, equality and fraternity.  Our democratic system is democratic in name only.  In reality, our representatives spend their time grafting in their constituencies in order to be re-elected (this is what a TD means when he says that he works hard).  Parliamentary democracy is a sham.  The executive which should be ‘accountable to the Dáil’, according to the constitution, instead rules the Dáil with an iron fist, and blithely ignores it when it wants to.  The myth that the Christian Brothers and the nuns brought us education and health when the government wouldn’t give it to us is dealt with in detail.  O’Toole shows how the church resisted government provision of education and health at every turn.  Finally, he demolishes the myth that Ireland is a wealthy nation, supposedly wealthier than Germany, for example.  The difference between GDP and GNP (frequently adverted to on this site) accounts for the idea that Ireland is a rich country.  A simple glance at the kind of things ordinary people can count on in Germany or France or the UK will show that our lives are far poorer by comparison — free health care, a decent transport system, well-funded education, elder care, public investment in streets, beaches, parks, pools, gymnasiums, etc.  But the ghost profits generated by trans-national corporations and laundered through Ireland make us seem very rich indeed.  Unfortunately very little of it stays here.

Together with a strong critique of the illusions by which the Irish state sustains itself there is a journalist’s penchant for the telling historical detail, anecdote or statistic.  For example, here’s a paragraph from the chapter on The Myth of The Republic:

It’s also worth looking back on an MRBI poll, conducted for an RTÉ Today Tonight programme in November 1991.  To the proposition that ‘there is a Golden Circle of people in Ireland who are using power to make money for themselves’, a massive 89 per cent agreed.  Eighty-one per cent agreed that the people in this Golden Circle were made up in equal measure of business people and politicians.  Seventy-six per cent thought the scandals that were then beginning to emerge were ‘part and parcel’ of the Irish Economic system rather than one-off events.  Eighty-three per cent thought that the then current scandals were merely ‘the tip of the iceberg’, while 84 per cent said business people involved in corrupt dealings and fraud got off more lightly than other criminals.  (The inconsistency in the use of figures and words for numbers is in the original.)

This startling prescience (‘the then current scandals were merely “the tip of the iceberg”‘) is something that we have all forgotten.  We now declare ourselves surprised or even shocked by the level of corruption and stupidity of government, but in 1991 we knew all about it.  Did we forget it during the Celtic Tiger years, or did pollsters simply stop asking our opinion?  There is more of this.  He instances bills such as the Central Bank Bill, guillotined in 2009 because the debate, which began at midday, had run up against lunchtime.  The entire bill, the most important of the entire Dáil term, together with forty six complex amendments, was dealt with in an hour, only thirteen amendments were put to the house, the rest were deemed passed because of the pressure of hunger.  No minister from the Department of Finance was present.  And so on.  In many ways this ground was covered in Ship of Fools, maybe not the same information, but the same case.  He remakes it here because he wants to argue that each of these myths has a corrosive effect on civil society.  We now know something of the extent of that corrosion.  I remember how, in or about 1979, our Volkswagen Beetle driven into a deep flood some months before, bits began to fall off — a door today, a mirror, a hole under the seat, a bolt in a front wheel.  Eventually, one cold November night coming back from Waterford, the engine came off the mountings.  We’re beginning to feel that threatening vibration now.  The engine is coming off.

The central argument of the second half of the book is, in a way, the point of the whole exercise.  We need, O’Toole argues, to completely rethink our society.  He turns a critical eye on fondly cherished platitudes (where would we be without the Brothers, at least we’re a republic, etc) in order to make us see that it is all a sham designed for the protection of power and wealth and the concentration of that power and wealth in as few hands as possible.  A similar critique could be directed at most western democracies (the British myth of fairness, the French myth of intellectualism, etc.) but that need not concern us here.  This book is about Ireland.  There is no comfort to be gained from observing that other countries are corrupt in different ways and none at all from measuring our level of corruption against theirs (measurement is such a neoliberal reaction to difference!).  The fact is our state has failed, and failed spectacularly.  We now have an opportunity to make a new start.

So what is the programme?  Inevitably, because O’Toole is a literary and cultural critic, as well as a political one, the programme doesn’t read like any party manifesto.  It goes deeper.  In a sense it involves the complete re-education of the population, O’Toole’s own Cultural Revolution.  And because he nails his colours to the mast of a nebulous ship called The Republic, judging probably correctly that Irish people are more likely to rally to that cry than the cry of Socialism, there is a sense of idealism rather than materialism at work.  Even the idea of ‘decencies’ sounds vaguely bourgeois and effete.  The question arises: What do people want now?  I have a feeling that they’d be happier with the Bolsheviks than the Mensheviks just at the moment.  People might recoil at the execution of bank CEOs and politicians this morning, but the day after tomorrow they’d be getting on with moving into the newly nationalised ghost estate and opening a savings account in the National Bank.  So calling for ‘decencies’ seems somehow to undershoot the popular mood.

Equally, it is arguable that short of violence a cultural revolution on this profound scale would take years of re-education.  But the virtue of the moment is that people learn faster in time of trauma — a point ably made, though from the opposite perspective, in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine – and Irish society is now undergoing a traumatic self-evaluation.  If, O’Toole seems to be suggesting, we can all be turned into raving neoliberals overnight, the process can also be reversed overnight.

So what are these five decencies that could save us from ourselves?  Security (e.g. Pensions, Housing); Healthcare; Education; Equality; Citizenship, which O’Toole glosses as a kind of Republican stoicism which he calls austerity — one thinks here of Wordsworth’s cri de coeur for Republicanism in ‘England 1802’:

The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us.  Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:

Each of the ‘decencies’ that O’Toole advocates is necessary and valuable.  There are caveats, however.  For example, on education, he falls into the trap of justifying necessary educational change on economic grounds.  This is the neoliberal stance — everything is the economy — which sees education as the production of so-called ‘human capital’, rather than the liberation of critical minds.  Of course he’s right about our education system being weighted in favour of the children of better educated and wealthier parents, and Ireland badly needs measures that will allow the children of poorer or less well-educated parents to break through the barriers, but it is not sufficient justification for such measures to talk about the multipliers for the economy that can be gained from such initiatives.

Certainly Ireland would be a better place if O’Toole’s decencies prevailed.  However, there is an essential ingredient missing — and this problem pervades the entire analysis.  The problem is that none of it will happen unless we reverse the entire course the state has been on since 1922.  To achieve even an O’Toole level of justice and equality we need a socialist state.  There is a strong sense that this book advocates fiddling with the details, when in reality the whole edifice needs to be swept away.  I suspect that O’Toole made a deliberate choice — to avoid the ‘S’ word.  And it may well be argued that shattering the five myths and installing the five decencies is his attempt ‘to improvise, do what he can in a desperate situation’, that in fact the fulfillment of his project would be a form of socialism.  But avoiding the ‘S’ word leads to other flaws.  Also missing is any sense that Ireland’s peculiar problems are merely local variations of the malaise that is Global Capitalism.  Surely Ireland cannot claim to have uniquely corrupt, stupid or incompetent politicians when we consider that Silvio Berlusconi survived last week’s votes of no confidence.

Another example of this skewed analysis is O’Toole’s take on the housing surplus.  For O’Toole, Irish people are peculiarly attracted to property ownership as a result of their peasant antecedents.  Never mind that the desire to own one’s own home sprang from a time when most Irish people rented their miserable bedsits and flats from gouging landlords at exorbitant rents, and that those landlords haven’t gone away.  Never mind that other European countries have a higher incidence of home ownership.  Never mind that rental properties in Ireland compare very badly in terms of quality and space with, say, a McInerney scheme built house of the 1970s.  For O’Toole, Irish people are possessed by the kind of land hunger that destroyed The Bull McCabe.  See Conor McCabe’s ‘Irish Banks and the Great Housing Scam’ for a more measured take on the issue.

Hugely impressed by his grasp of the detail, I remain unconvinced by his solution.  Nevertheless, were he to be elected tomorrow on that landslide I mentioned, and were he to prosecute the programme with his usual energy, I am certain Ireland would be a much better, healthier, happier and wealthier place.  This is a useful book as a contribution to the dismantling of the present system, but it simply doesn’t go far enough or deep enough.

William Wall is an Irish poet, novelist, and short story writer.  This book review was first published by Irish Left Review on 17 December 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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