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The Chassis underneath the Stasis

Irish democracy is dying because the old who care no longer matter and the young mostly couldn’t care less

It’s a couple of years since I observed somewhere or other that, if Enda Kenny chose to have an election in the springtime of 2016, he would fight it not against Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams but against Pádraig Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett. So it has come to pass, although this meaning of the outcome, like most of the others, has been overlooked or fudged in the moronic cacophony of the pol corrs, who have managed to achieve a quite astonishing feat of anti-journalism by reducing an unprecedented moment in Irish politics to a succession of quasi-routine news days.

I had been hoping to stay out of it. Having deliberately abstained from voting for the first time, and for the most part reading and listening to nothing but the dogs’ and street-criers’ accounts of the fallout through my open window, I imagined the whole thing would be over by now and we restored to our normal state of non-government by showroom dummies. When I heard the outline of the outcome – some five weeks’ since, at the time of writing – I immediately perceived that the arithmetic presented an insoluble conundrum for virtually every one of the 158 freshly-elected deputies, not to mention those we laughably call leaders.

What has astonished me (somewhat) is that almost nobody mentions the impossibility of the arithmetic. Most of the commentary since February 27th appears to have consisted in speculations, hints and musings about likely alliances, ‘exclusive’ information about possible seductions, lists of demands and breathless whispers of phone calls and texts, all delivered well into April as if it were still February.

But there is no possibility – other than a theoretical one – of a workable government being formed out of the present Dáil arithmetic. This is so obvious that we should be deeply concerned by the fact that it has not become conventional wisdom and given rise to the rather urgent question: what now?

When the pol corrs have not been talking up the talks about talks aimed at a minority administration of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael supported by the other, or a National Government of the two, they have been murmuring about the feasibility of various permutations of independents and others in conjunction with either FF or FG. But it must surely be obvious that this latter category of administration is conceivable only at the most theoretical and abstracted level of conjecture, since it would require the harmonic incorporation of between half-a-dozen and a dozen discrete and differently-minded entities (imagine a menagerie of wildcats, badgers, rats, ferrets, foxes and, sitting in the middle calling for order, Willie O’Dea).

Since most of the swollen ranks of the raggle-taggle technicolour brigade have been elected on the basis of either local grievances or broader anti-austerity platforms, no government dependent on their continued concurrence could hope to last anything more than a few weeks. The first time a contentious issue cropped up, the mavericks would be tripping over one another to be first out of the door. In the old days, mavericks were simply bought off, but those days are gone. There are far too many, and what would the IMF say?

 

Like their iPhones, the country is somehow looked after, or looks after itself
Like their iPhones, the country is somehow looked after, or looks after itself

And in case you have not already guessed this from the track records of those predicting it, there never was the slightest prospect of a National Government. Fine Gael, having peddled a localised relapse of the Celtic Tiger as a national ‘recovery’, is hoist on its own rhetorical petard: it cannot now claim that conditions exist for the declaration of a national emergency. A minority government of either of the theoretical options is almost equally improbable. Two words: Tallaght Strategy.

The dismal political fate this phrase invited upon the head of its architect, Alan Dukes, speaks to us of the perils of statesmanship in a context where Darwinian principles obtain. Nearly three decades ago, Dukes thought to gain himself a place in history by doing the decent thing and placing the national interest before party-political advantage, supporting the then minority Fianna Fáil government in a programme of austerity that would have made Claire Daly choke on her own fulminations. Perhaps Dukes foresaw the electorate rewarding his selflessness, or perhaps he had a more Machiavellian intention, but in any event history records the electorate as computing something to the effect that martyrs should seek their rewards in the next life. Fine Gael failed to cash in and Dukes became political toast.

Kenny and Martin may not be Pearse and Plunkett, but they didn’t get where they are today without functioning memories and finely tuned instincts for the meaning of past events in the present. Neither of them wants to end up like Dukes, wandering the post-political landscape, the lost soul of a former contender. This is why all the continuing talk of ‘horse-trading’ is simply smokescreen: they must SEEM to be trying to form a government, but both of them know that, whichever of them ended up supporting a minority government led by the other would have signed his own political death warrant. There is, in other words, no horse.

The abortive Fine Gael proposal for a “partnership government”, rejected as Village was going to press, was no more than an attempt to deny the result of the election. Any such arrangement would amount, in effect, to the nullification of electoral contests, since it would mean that in future any number of parties and candidates could engage in all kinds of debates and disagreements during an election campaign in the knowledge that, once the election was over, they were free to carve up the cake between them as though nothing had been said and nothing had occurred. The idea of a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ amounts to a satire on the office: why not – as an alternative to two periods of 30 months – simply have a night shift and a day shift on an alternating weekly basis?

I have never been one for attributing a mind to the electorate. We have had a little too much of that, in 40 years of every kind of political shyster seeking to invoke retrospectively some alleged deep-seated will of the voters to summon up all kinds of possibilities for unholy alliances which had been either dismissed out of hand in the proximate election or were so remote from thinkability as to be in the realm of comedy. And yet, this time around, it is as though the electorate has indeed acted with one mind.

From the beginning of this, there was but one functional answer: a second election. But politicians hate and fear elections and will do almost literally anything to avoid one. Thus, with the collusion of the media, they pretended the possibility of another solution. In fact, any contrived solution will amount merely to a stalling device, and will not last piddling time. Since February 27th, we have been moving inexorably and ineluctably towards a fairly immediate second election, in which the same conditions will apply – which does not rule out an altogether different result. Fine Gael, had it the brains and bottle, might by changing its leader steal another few years of relative normality before the crisis announces itself as irreversible.

I have been morosely fascinated bythe absolute inability of anyone in politics or the media to say that we are in an entirely unprecedented and bizarre situation, for which we have as yet no words or names. It is as if the electorate- with-no-mind had withal delivered an insoluble mathematical puzzle to the political system, a profound human-generated algorithm in the cause of denying the politicians the recourse of interpreting the outcome according to their own requirements and at the same time saying: ‘Yes, there really is a ghost in the machine! Boo!!’.

Once we look past the superficiality of the relative strengths of the parties, the mathematics of the comparative permutations and the unworkability of each and every conceivable option, we see the sheer ingenuity of the message delivered by the deep and common unconscious of an electorate which, duped too many times, ultimately trusts nobody trading under the name of politician to do anything but what the paymasters demand. The beauty of the election outcome resides in the fact that it seems to means something, and yet this putative, implied meaning cannot be translated politically. This is neither, as the politicians and pol corrs insist, an accident of the electoral system nor a random feature of the result. It is a deliberate element of the voters’ judgement, which is not a positive endorsement of anything, but quite the opposite.

The pundits pore over the figures and permutations but, afflicted by the logic of their calling, see things inside out; the politicians, being attuned to every nuance of the meaning of votes, must know more or less what they have been told. Hence this unprecedented moment of stasis. Those who have been elected feel unconsciously that they have been chosen as negative statements – against something or someone, rather than FOR anything, least of all for themselves. Thus they have been put on notice that a rupture of some kind has occurred in the imagination of the voting populace.

The meaning of the present stasis, by virtue of the negativity of the election outcome that preceded it, is much more far-reaching than suggested by the mooted immediate consequences, e.g. the fabled ‘political instability’, occasionally mentioned as though the bubonic plague. The stalemate is not simply the accidental outcome of conflicts between rival desires of a confused electorate. Being the consequence of an outright negativity, its implications could scarcely be more ominous. It signals a form of resignation by some sections of the voting populace – resignation in the sense of withdrawing its services from the charade that politics has become.

This negativity, however, is not gratuitous; it does not exist for its own sake. It is not purely petulant. There are reasons for it, in fact different kinds of reasons emanating from different kinds of negativity, albeit all adding up to a single minus-statement out of which has arisen the present inertia.

A journalist from a foreign newspaper asked me recently if there was not a connection between the election result and last year’s referendum. It seemed obvious, he said, that the annihilation of the Labour Party contained some such meaning, as perhaps did the eliminations of such as Mr Shatter and others. On the surface of things, I responded, you would have to say that there is minimal evidence of a direct connection, the two events being of quite different character. And yet the circumstantial evidence was interesting.

Just as it is risky to impute a single mind to the electorate, it is a mistake to see a voting public as the same ‘beast’ from one poll to the next. In fact, the cohort that voted in the general election would have been a substantively different ‘animal’ to that which voted on the marriage and family question put in the referendum last year. TheReferendum Commission noted that young people were “particularly engaged” by that referendum. By contrast, in the general election, based on figures contained in RTÉ’s exit poll, it would seem that, whereas the oldest section of the population – 65 and upwards – voted just short of its weight within the general population (15.9% of the overall vote, as against 17.3% of the population), the youngest sector – 18-24 – managed a ratio of just over half its weighted value (6.5% of the vote compared to its population share of 11.6%). The oldest cohort therefore voted at a level 1.65 times that of the youngest, a ratio of 5:3. It is likely that many older voters who voted in the general election voted No or did not vote at all last May, and that many of the first-time voters who turned out inthat referendum abstained, like me, from voting in February.

I wouldn’t go so far as tosuggest that disgruntled people bided their time to use the general election to make a statement on the amendment alone. Nonetheless, it is possible to see in the result a more complex, possibly unconscious response of people who had been lied to under many headings – especially economics and related issues – who trusted the outgoing coalition government to represent them, believed what the politicians said about defending their interests in Europe etc, but then observed something close to the opposite playing itself out. It is therefore not implausible to read into the election outcome a message along the lines of: ‘You promised us backbone and fairness and all you gave us was ‘marriage equality’, which we never asked for!’ This message was not overt, but a subtle, slightly hidden one, as befits a response to the bullying and scapegoating which were the principal recourses of those pushing last year’s constitutional ransacking. I see the election result as a sublimated roar of metaphysical rage emanating from the belly of the ‘permanent’ electorate, some members of which may well have been additionally motivated by virtue of finding themselves invited simultaneously to reflect on the visions of Pearse and Plunkett while being offered a Hobson’s choice between Enda and Micheál.

Yet, the referendum result, whatever you thought of it, represented a positive outcome, at least in the minds of those voting for it. It was a vote for something, albeit not what most of those voting imagined they were voting for. (In fact, they were voting for the radical reinvention of both marriage and family, for the rest of constitutional time.) The election result is the opposite: a vote against things and political life-forms.

We contemplate, then, an electorate divided generationally as though by a cleaver. The younger sector is mainly detached from everyday political reality, having nothing but contempt for politics except in as far as it provides opportunities for identity-related statements (‘gay marriage is cool, therefore good’); the older elements continue to see politics as it used to be, making connections between how they vote and the complex well-being of their country and their own circumstance.

Here’s the rub: the totality of the energies of the political system is now directed at the younger sector – engaging, seducing, appeasing. And yet this younger sector flatters itself that it is too smart, cyber-savvy and educated to be spoken for by the gobdaws who people the political bubble. Meanwhile, the old, who used to care about stuff, are rapidly growing tired of being ignored in favour of the young, who couldn’t care less. The media continue to write and talk about politics as though this rupture had not occurred, as though the underfoot conditions were exactly as they were in our fathers’ time. In reality we stumble through a post-political landscape. Those who know and care about how democracy actually works are dying off one by one, and as a consequence Irish democracy is in its death throes also. It will die as the Irish Press once died, and for the same reasons. Its death will perhaps coincide with the final breaths of the Irish Catholic Church, and again for the same reasons.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, writing in 2001, spoke of a “silent insurrection”, in modern society, among the symptoms of which is a refusal to be represented. He had in mind the technologisation of modern life and the consequent alienation of the human person from a sociological reality that amounts to a simulacrum of the real. Fifteen years on, his analysis reveals itself as prophecy. Caught between the real and the virtual, the modern inhabitant of cyberspace is no longer representable in the old way. Politics and the freedom offered by democracy have revealed themselves, in this diagnosis, as ‘bit-part playing and a shabby hoax’, for many cyber-savvy young people a doltish activity in which they have no interest.

Baudrillard talked about a strain of humanity that had moved beyond freedom, meaning and even identity, becoming subjects of a new order who may use the language of politics but no long recognise its purpose or usefulness in their lives. Ideas like ‘running the country’ or ‘envisioning the future’ are alien to them, because they believe that, like their iPhones and laptops, the country is somehow looked after, or looks after itself, and the future will be there waiting for them when they get there. They seem to envisage a democracy run along the same lines as a Google search: a random series of benefits tailormade to your needs and delivered like baguettes hanging on your door knocker when you awake from your dreams. “What interest”, asks Baudrillard, “does the modern individual have in being represented – the individual of the networks and the virtual, the multifocal individual of the operational sphere? He does his business, and that is that”. As we are going, a future electorate, if it even recognises itself as such, won’t care about the content of anything so long as the meaning is ‘cool’.

We take it for granted that politicians want power, but nowadays, with power belonging mainly to the extra-political domain – the multinational corpo-colonisers, the bond-traders, the bureaucrats who slide invisibly on the greased rails of totalitarian ambition – a new kind of politician has emerged who fits this new era precisely: one who wants position rather than power, prestige rather than influence, a state car rather than a principled platform, a career rather than a legacy. Power has slipped away through political fingers, not just to the multinationals, stock-jobbers and bureaucrats, but into a process little short of miraculous in its stochastic, algorithmic nature, and this too dovetails beautifully with the mentality of the unrepresentable as described by Baudrillard.

In truth, the present much-discussed political impasse is making no difference to the stability or wellbeing of the country, nor would it begin to do so were it to continue for another 20 years. It is even probable that things will improve exponentially for as long as we continue to have no proper government.

What the election result ultimately conveyed, therefore, was a multi-faceted disclaiming of representation: different people, different categories of people, stating in their different ways: none of you may presume to speak for me anymore – some said this by abstaining, others by voting against: i.e. deliberately elevating Paul, not for his own sake but to deny Peter. Hence the impossibility of the result. It is not surprising that politicians no longer know what to do with themselves or what they ought to seem to stand for to best advantage.

Politics, as a result of these trends, has arrived at an unscheduled midlife crisis. Sheathed in skintight jeans and driving a red hairdresser’s Ferrari, the politician has turned his back on his natural constituency: those who know about the past and its meanings and the role of proclamations and constitutions, and how these phenomena matter in the present. Their heads turned by the scorn of the young, our alleged leaders play the part of medallion-chested lounge lizards who court the mini-skirted, stilettoed bimbos who huddle in groups at the disco giggling into their cocktails at the ludicrousness of their suitors, the pursuit of the unrepresentable by the reprehensible.

By John Waters