05 January 2010

An uncompleted project of political modernity

I have spent the first few days of the New Year reading Fintan O'Toole's 'Ship of Fools', his account of the arrogance, stupidity and corruption that created our current economic crises, and judging by the book's place in the top three of the Irish bestsellers' list over the last few weeks I am not the only one to be doing so.

While our government and their pet economists may try and portray our woes as being part of the wider global economic downturn, it is clear that successive years of corrupt and suspect practices on the part of the Irish financial and property sectors encouraged and supported by successive corrupt and suspect Fianna Fail governments are largely to blame for our unique downfall. O'Toole examines the culture, relationships and social attitudes that created this perfect storm of criminal ignorance, which he summarizes neatly in his conclusion:
"A primitive, pre-modern land hunger created the new feudalism in which the elite puffed up the price of land and inflated a fatal property boom. The political system, embodied most thoroughly in Fianna Fail, remained rooted in the Tammany Hall politics of the nineteenth-century Irish-American Democratic Party machines. Its interest in power and patronage to the virtual exclusion of all else meant that politics, when they needed to be imbued with ideas and ambition, were still defined by what 'one of the most senior figures in [Bertie] Ahern's administration' told the political journalist Pat Leahy: 'Politics is keeping enough people happy at the right time and taking shit for the rest of the time.' A system of patronage and personal connection continued to operate, from the constituent being 'looked after' by the TD to the donor being 'looked after' by the minister.

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 bourgeoisie continued with its nineteenth-century attitude of valuing the professions above all, and certainly above science, maths and technology. And the heroic powers 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. Together these five forces created a crazed property boom, a reckless banking system, a lack of interest in the technologies that had created the boom, and a political and public mentality in which none of these realities could be grasped." - Fintan O'Toole, 'Ship of Fools', pp 214-215
Over the Christmas break my attention was drawn by Ms Léan (she of the String Revolution) to a video of Fintan O'Toole at this Autumn's TASC conference. I was supposed to attend the conference myself but unfortunately there was the little matter of the simultaneous Green Convention on the revised Program for Government; given the way that worked out (both personally and for the Nation as a whole) in hindsight my time would probably have been better spent at the TASC event.

Still, the good people at TASC saw fit to record the event and upload each of the speakers' sections to the tubes of the interweb, and that of O'Toole is essentially a summary of his conclusions in 'Ship of Fools', specifically his thesis that at its heart Ireland remains rooted in the nineteenth-century. In the lecture he argues that:
"There is a sense in which Ireland went from being pre-modern to post modern with nothing in between… we went from an uncompleted political modernity, in terms of the construction of a national democracy, we didn't get it, without the ideas of human rights, for example, without ideas of a moral community, all of those notions that had to be constructed by other Western societies as a result of the disasters of the Second World War, the Welfare State, ideas of social responsibility, ideas of rooting democracy in society, those things didn't happen to us because we were outside of the frame of the 1950s reconstruction of Europe. So we had an uncompleted project of modernity and as a result there were factors within Irish political culture and Irish social culture which remained rooted in the 19th century and remained unreconstructed."
This is a very interesting argument, that because as a nation (as opposed to a very small group of individuals) we have never had to fight for our current democracy, or reconstruct our economic, social and political systems from the ashes of their destruction, we have never matured beyond the socio-economic norms and aspirations that we inherited from our colonial past upon independence. The lack of any real left/right dichotomy in contemporary or historical Irish politics and the sense of 'absolute impunity' that accompanies those in power (either politically or economically) also contribute strongly to what he perceives as a landscape of neo-feudalism.

Written as a "polemical, rather than a historical or academic work", 'Ship of Fools' draws from publicly available material, the findings of tribunals and the works of other journalists, so while some accusations of "well why didn't you say so at the time" have been leveled at this and other similar works by Shane Ross and Matt Cooper, in truth O'Toole has been arguing against the excesses of Fianna Fail's neo-liberal failings for many years and has highlighted these findings and reports on numerous occasions, usually to deaf ears. In fact he draws attention to the seemingly unique Irish political tradition of candidates for office consistently gaining more votes after they have been found guilty of corruption than before their skulduggery was disclosed:
"Civic morality is not absent in Ireland, but it is marginal and fragile. The political system is tribal, local and clientelist - there is a strong impulse to vote, not for a decent person or a national leader, but for someone who will successfully manipulate the system on behalf of both constituents individually and the constituency as a whole. If morality comes into the equation it is often through the vague but powerful feeling that a lack of it might make for a more effective local champion." - Fintan O'Toole, 'Ship of Fools', p 33
Thus we cannot simply assign the blame for our woes on the coat-hooks of our political and economic feudal lords, there is a very strong sense that our own internal corruption has enabled their behavior.

The outcome of all this is O'Toole's call for a movement of national renewal, embodied by the birth of a Second Republic, encompassing a change in "public morality, in the sense of sustainability" (best summarized as "people knowing when to stop"), a "sweeping reform of the institutions of government" including the transfer of real power to local government, a reduction in size of the Dail and "a realignment of the political party system" away from the traditional centre-right/centre-right non-choice of Irish political populism, and finally "the articulation of a social vision" to replace the Me Fein, get-rich-quick amorality of the Celtic Tiger years. All stirring stuff really that echoes calls made here and elsewhere in recent months.

One hopes that the prominence this book enjoys in the bestsellers' list of late is an indication of the number of angry people across the nation who, like me, are nodding their heads in agreement with O'Toole and, occasionally like me, might be motivated to get up out of their seats and do something about it.

The fact that it has consistently been pipped to the top spot by the autobiography of a fictional man-potato that graces the front of a crisp packet is somewhat less heartening.

Watch the TASC video below and read the book, it really is worth a few hours of your time.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Older Posts... ...Newer Posts