By Michael Smith.
Colm McCarthy, Ireland’s most unangry man, has stated portentously if unoriginally that “anger is not a policy”. He likes to reach smugly for a metaphorical spreadsheet that emits efficacious public policy to him alone, at his click. He’s right of course. Always right! The Roman stoic philosopher Seneca agreed with him: anger was “worthless even for war”. For Catholics anger is one of the seven deadly sins.
Aristotle, contrariwise, endorsed a bit of anger, at least when deployed to prevent injustice. The opposite of anger is a kind of insensibility, he reckoned. At the far end of the cultural spectrum (from Aristotle, not necessarily from McCarthy) the Sith Lord Sidious, from ‘Star Wars’, tells Anakin Skywalker who has metamorphosised into evil Darth Vader: “I can feel your anger. It gives you focus, makes you stronger!”.
But in Ireland the strength has always outgunned the focus. Anger as represented in risings has an honoured tradition here dating back to Silken Thomas, the Desmond rebellions and Hugh O’Neill, in the sixteenth century. The State was founded in anger and indeed blood; and the 1916 Rising Proclamation refers to six rebellions in the previous 300 years.
Of course post-colonial revolution focuses not on separatism but on politics, not quite so much on by what country as on by whom and how a country is governed. The most famous modern protests internationally were in 1968. Globally, exposure of the contradictions of capitalism has latterly again spawned anger on the streets, in the polling booths and in opinion polls: with Occupy and the Indignados, protests in Egypt and the rise of hard-right and hard-left poles in Europe, and of the Tea Party in the US.
Characteristic of the latest wave of international protest has been the participation of ordinary people, not lobbies with lists of demands. Their mix of revelry and rage condemns the corruption, inefficiency and arrogance of the 1%, even if – whatever about protests – solutions are rarely coherent or consensual.
In Ireland after an extraordinarily slow start a campaign is rallying to threaten the fundaments of a bondholder-friendly, unimaginative, regressive and arrogant government.
The campaign has been a shrewd if rough-hewn balance of consensus and sulphur. The problem is it has coalesced around the wrong issue.
A recent article in the Irish Times was headlined “Protest works – if it breaks rules”. Fine. But one rule it must not break is choosing the right thing to protest over. Even if doing so gets gratifyingly up the capacious nose of the establishment.
On its own terms the water-tax campaign has been a resounding success, consensual, cross-party (opposition parties anyway) good-spirited though with a hard-nosed edge. There has been some violence. Joan Burton got ignominiously imprisoned in her car. A garda was hit by a stone outside the Dáil; and respect has gratifyingly disintegrated, taking the discourse with it. So An Taoiseach was told he was a c*** at a meeting about the Easter Rising commemorations, and feisty new Environment Minister Alan Kelly told Mattie McGrath TD to fuck off, because he was annoying him. Sinn Féin too has been busily registering its contempt at the irascible personage of the Ceann Comhairle. It sat in in the Dáil with very little immediate provocation from the speaker, and has stridently broken most of the august rules on parliamentary privilege.
The problem is that if revolution, anger or even contempt were the currency we would have been rich half a millennium ago.
But the history of revolution – that Marxists predicted would replace the bourgeoisie with the proletariat – instead dictated that the bourgeoisie was always replaced with the bourgeoisie, after a decent break. Not so exciting.
The revolutionary generation in Ireland took the country through to the conservative, protectionist, frugal and religious fifties and sixties. The Civil War parties delivered nothing but conservatism, albeit sometimes – proving the point – cynically dressed up as socialism. The Labour Party failed to deliver on exciting manifestos every time it fell for power. The most hated government in Ireland’s history was replaced with a government so close in orientation to it that it is indistinguishable. It failed to deliver the anti-bondholder, anti-corruption, anti-profligacy policies its component parties had championed at election time.
Meanwhile rampant, power-thirsty Sinn Féin which secretly dominated the December 10 water-charge protest, seems poised to replicate the mistakes of Fianna Fáil’s policy-free nationalistic populism in the South but with a retardation of 90 years.
In the North Sinn Féin part-fronts one of the least radical governments in Europe.
And after a crisis that looks like it has been almost entirely wasted it is still possible for Ireland’s best selling newspaper to feature on its cover Michael Fitzmaurice, newly elected independent TD for Leitrim/South-Roscommon, as the future of change.
Fitzmaurice is chair of the burn-the-environment turfcutters, a cross of the earnestness of Peter Mathews and the gombeenism of Jackie Healy Rae (and their visual cross to boot). He is a man without a single coherent idea. He now plans to establish a party to replicate this vacuum as a platform and to stand 25 candidates in the general election. It will be “neither left or right wing but down the middle”.
The problem is that if you’re not ideological you’ll split, because your troops will be annoyed when it turns out they didn’t get what they marched for – when they realise they got something else that only you thought they wanted.
There are unlikely to be any great ideologies waiting to be discovered (though certainly we all crave new ideas): keep it Left, Right and maybe Green – and, if you must, Conservative or Liberal but spare us ideology-free nationalism, down-the-centrism or turfcutterism.
After 100 years of independence! Michael Fitzmaurice is a split waiting for a movement and a generation, to squander.
In other words what McCarthy said is true: anger and the reaction it generates does not effect social change or even clever ideas.
Look at how the angry-about-planetary-destruction Green Party failed to make any significant difference socially, economically or even environmentally. Indignation tied to ineptitude took us nowhere really.
Admittedly some politicians from our Left, very few, seem so ascetic and purist that they may not sell out – so long as they are never co-opted into government. Their purity is in inverse proportion to the likelihood, and to be fair, the willingness, to take the compromising reins of power.
But too many of the oppressed and too many in the opposition simply want what the oppressors and the government have.
Look at Bertie Ahern, a man with no principles beyond assuaging everyone in the room: the most popular politician of our epoch. John O’Donoghue, anyone? Martin Cullen? Or look forward to Sinn Féin.
In general we can see from their policies ex ante that most politicians cannot be relied on in government. If you spend your time in opposition or in local politics doing favours for your neighbours, getting drains fixed and whingeing for one-off-housing permissions you won’t adapt well to any public-interest role in government since the public interest is not simply the accumulation of every private interest indulged. The public interest needs to be defined by an ideology, indeed competing ideologies, that people can vote for, so they know what they are getting and don’t risk contradiction and split.
And if in opposition you – on policy grounds (assuming you have any) – opposed capital-gains and capital-acquisition hikes, property taxes and progressive income tax you are unlikely to favour wealth-redistribution if you come to power. Your instincts will tell you these are the instruments of your agenda. Any serious Leftist should be proud to stand for taxes, fair taxes. To pay for public services. And any Leftist should favour planning: economic, social and physical, for planning is a machine for change.
For Leftists environmentalism should be a secondary imperative but an imperative nonetheless.
Because environmentalism ensures future generations can participate equitably in the fruits of the earth that were handed down to us from the previous one. And equity above all else is what should drive the Left.
This logic does not appeal to the Irish Left of today. Paul Murphy TD of the Anti-Austerity Alliance recently told ‘Morning Ireland’: “Water charges must be defeated. Any charge for water whatsoever represents the start of the commodification of water – charges will only go in one direction which is up – and it will lead to privatisation”. Richard Boyd Barrett has said the latest wide-ranging concessions on the water charges will “not assuage public anger against a fundamentally regressive and unfair tax”.
Such comments from thoughtful and articulate leaders of the Left sets back half a century of political theory that says imposing charges for the polluter does not represent commodification and, because it protects the environment, is fair.
But whatever about the theory, in practice in any event the average annual water bill for the next three years will be €150 per person. GDP per head is around €40,000. A campaign that centres on distribution of one-two-hundred-and sixty-seventh of the income that is available to be distributed is selling protestors short.
Perhaps the nadir of the (anti)-intellectual morass that is the water campaign has been suggestions, led by the Greens, of a constitutional referendum to prohibit privatisation, though opinion polls posit a popular majority in favour. If the Greens want a referendum how about one guaranteeing that development should be sustainable, or greenhouse gas emissions minimised or maybe committing the state to using natural resources for the benefit of all its citizens. If we want a referendum how about one that changes property rights to reduce the inoculation from restraint of lawyers, or consultants, or private pensions or speculators or the corrupt? Or the daddy of referendums committing governments to annual improvements in equality, stringently measured by the Gini coefficient – what nobler purpose for politics? But prohibiting privatising Irish Water – how meagre!
Unfortunately what we can see from the performance of many on the Irish Left is that they are more Irish than Left. This is embarrassing parochialism.
For nearly all, the obsession with property and indeed with ‘family’ transcends the imperative to redistribute wealth, so we’re left with a Left that appears to understand only income tax.
A wealth tax on the family home? Jayz – how would people cope? Well they’d cope as well as families do with income tax proportionate to their incomes. The Left should favour equitable redistribution across a range of taxes to promote high-quality services and infrastructure (with the limit being the level at which productivity starts reducing beyond the benefit of the redistribution).
Forget protesting about the paltry water tax. Think big, and don’t waste energy on campaigns that are incoherent, that pitch left and right together, that above all are centred on property rights – the atavistic Irish fetish for not allowing anyone to interfere with your land, your legacy, your right to build, your water.
Of course this is to simplify.
The property tax is not exemplary, a wealth tax (of which property was only a component) would be better; and the water tax is not progressive and not really driven by any sort of environmentalism. Nevertheless such taxes conduce to equity (and environmentalism). The silly versions applying at the moment are a start, the establishment of new principles in taxation, and should be overhauled not abolished.
A campaign in Ireland centring on water charges is bound to be more notable for its popularity than its integrity. Worse it will marshall the fragile resources and goodwill of the Left, and the language or radical protest, for an issue that appeals mostly to right-wingers. Centralising water long-term would be the death of the Left.
Nevertheless, in 2014 anger that should have been marshalled to undermine the bank guarantee and the bailout, the serial regressive budgets, the cuts to the most vulnerable like Travellers, has at least finally crystallised, in Ireland. We are seeing people-powered protest at an intensity finally to turn the heads of complacent market apologists like Colm McCarthy and his acolytes in government and the bureaucracy. This could not be more welcome.
Because, although it is not sufficient, anger is necessary for change.
But in 2015 let’s not march for tweaks to a tiny tax. Let’s march for greater equality measured by the Gini coefficient – definitive progress for anyone who is ethical. For equality, the environment, quality of life, efficiency, transparency and honesty. For big, sure change. •