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Electoral fickleness in liquid modernity.

Change melts political loyalties so parties such as Sinn Féin can only, strategically, aim to generate temporary commonalities.

By Ronan Doyle.

“The old guard can have yesterday”, tweeted Sinn Féin the day before the general election. “Tomorrow is ours. Vote for change. Vote for Unity”. On that particular morrow sufficient votes were returned to push a post-election narrative that is now centred on political, social and economic change. As for the place of unity, it remains to be seen.

Consciously or unconsciously, change is something that we have been prioritising, individually and collectively, for quite some time. Consider the perspective on change afforded Irish citizens currently in their seventies or above: in 1945 two out of three Irish homes did not have electricity or a piped water supply; in the 1946 census 94.3% of citizens in the Republic identified as Roman Catholic, while 97.8% of the 32-county population had been born on the island of Ireland; in 1949 a woman from County Laois was sentenced to death (subsequently commuted to life imprisonment) for poisoning her brother with strychnine – in 1949 this was Ireland’s solitary murder. 

The profundity of change that has been implemented and absorbed within living memory sees a twenty-first century Ireland  where the private car, mobile phones and the internet are now effectively ubiquitous; where divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion have been legalised; where kids don’t know how to run or play spontaneously, where, perhaps, the public are being desensitised to violent crime; where the country’s extensive network of water pipes is falling to pieces, in a home to the most dynamic global ‘tech’ companies, one of the richest countries in the world.  

All changed utterly.

So what exactly is different about the change we’ve been experiencing more recently? The principal difference is seen in the ever-increasing rate and complexity of change: things change much faster than they used to, and more things are changing all the time. With dramatic and continual technological advancements enabling both this escalation and proliferation, many of our most basic value prioritisations are also quite naturally being reshaped. 

Not so long ago the institutions of church, state, capitalism and tradition were the bedrock upon which a nation’s people might ‘settle down’, ‘stick to the task’ and individually realise the collective ambition of the pensionable job and a house (or a mortgage) for life.

Today, stability and durability betoken a certain stasis: the paralysis of being old-fashioned or incapable of moving with the times, of failing to adequately upskill, upgrade and improve. To be ‘settled’ now can suggest an inability, no matter how unfair, to take proper advantage of the present conditions or to escape situations – professional, social or personal – that have become unsatisfying. 

The instability that many of a certain age were conditioned to repel is now something to be nurtured. The most ‘successful’ people now tend to be its most mobile: that is, those with the least restrictive ties; those who can move most easily between spaces, markets and jobs, between people and morals; those, in other words, who are most adaptable to change, as well as their own fluctuating wishes. 

The theory of liquid modernity, developed by Polish philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, offers an interpretation of contemporary societal conditions that keeps the processes of modernising change at its mutable core. It is not a theory that makes particularly good reading for politicians or, perhaps, for those who elect them to office.

On many levels the politician, as stereotypically conceived, would seem preternaturally made for liquid modernity. However, as the rate and complexity of change has increased, so too has the instability inherent in our erstwhile solid socio-political institutions, as well as the necessity for increased mobility to respond to that instability. 

If access to data and financial capital denote contemporary power, then power is already flowing away from the old institutions, from Parliament. Borders and boundaries, previously demarcating economic, socio-cultural and political territories, are becoming increasingly porous and inconsequential. There is little to stop the flow or instantaneous movement of power – and the free market does not want it stopped. 

For Bauman, as a consequence, power now primarily exists in the largely borderless electronic networks that connect the liquid-modern world. 

All of which means that our politicians, and their politics, have  become more bark than bite.

The escalation and proliferation of change has also seen an intensification of our very modern tendency toward individualism, including as voters. With the traditional public space increasingly undermined, our personal ambitions and our wishes are now most clearly defined by our own uniquely individual and private circumstances and expectations, which are themselves subject to continual change. 

Bauman’s theory suggests that, with things as they are, the kind of collective public unity that Sinn Féin are hoping to mobilise, is actually impossible to develop. The elector, essentially, has become as fickle and unreliable as the elected representative. While the days of inherited loyalty to Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil may well be over, it may also be that the days of sustained loyalty to any political party are over. Rather than wasting time trying to develop faithfully reliable constituencies, the liquid-modern political strategist will identify commonalities that bring people ‘together’ at just the right time – and for just the right amount of time – to deliver results, before the same people disperse again like participants in a Twitterstorm or a brief, collaborative Open Source project.

         A concluding reference to The Communist Manifesto seems timely: 

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”.

The emergence of a mature left alternative in Ireland will require time. But with the rate of change so fast and so erratic, and with more solids melted than Marx or Engels could ever have predicted, time is the commodity that today feels in shortest supply. It may not be possible to know where change is bringing us, but reflecting carefully on multiple potential future destinations may well improve our present incrementally.

Ronan Doyle is a PhD candidate at NUI Galway and a member of Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software