Monthly Archives: October 2011

A Presidency With Enormous Potential

Yes, at the end of a tortuous journey, made all the more tortuous by a deeply flawed ‘journalism’, we have a President. In choosing Michael D Higgins to be President, over a million voters have given the wealthy Irish, and the rest of the political class, grounds for real unease.

In his early reactions to his election, Michael D has made clear his intention to work towards the creation of a true republic, something that will require real change – “This necessary transformation which has now begun will, I hope, result in making the values of equality, respect, participation in an active citizenship, the characteristic of the next seven years. The reconnection of society, economy and ethics, is a project we cannot postpone”.

Equality, respect, active citizenship, society and ethics are words that do not fit into the neo-liberal lexicon. They are words that have long been absent from the discourse of the southern Irish political class, other than for their propaganda value in which their use is entirely cynical. This absence is not a recent occurrence, but is part of a nine-decades-long counter-revolution, the central aim of which has been to defend privilege by maintaining a right-wing political hegemony in which lip-service was paid to the notion of a ‘republic’ while the principles upon which a genuine republic must be based – liberty, equality, community and justice – were consistently thrashed.

The maintenance of that right-wing political hegemony has been achieved by co-opting a willing corporate and state media – itself right-wing and hegemonic, complete with its token regard for ‘other views’ so as to present the necessary illusion of an impartial/balanced face to the public. Even the most cursory analysis of media content across the entire mainstream spectrum reveals the values that are given primacy, values consistent with the needs and desires of the wealthy and the rest of the political class, values which have no regard for those principles that underpin a republic, values that are contrary to the best interests of the vast majority of the Irish people.

So,  Michael D Higgins has lined up powerful people and powerful institutions as necessary targets and, wise man that he is, is very well aware that they will set their sights on him as a target. We should expect subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to undermine his project of creating a real republic with an active citizenry as its owners.

But President Higgins will not be an easy target, or a willing fall-guy. Over a long political career he has demonstrated courage and consistency of belief, often having to suffer the jibes of fools, and almost always winning at least the political and moral arguments, if not the logical outcome of winning those arguments. He has very significant public support based on a published manifesto in which the true republic and the citizen were integral parts, and that public is substantially the readership and audience for the media which would have to provide the theatre in which attempts to undermine him would play out. Readership and audience brings advertising, and the media would do well to remember that you lose one and then you lose the other.

Drawing on both his academic and political careers, Michael D will be a formidable opponent for the ‘commentariat’, particularly if the role of the media in a democracy comes up for examination – which it must do as an important byproduct of the discussion around creating a true republic. He was very much prepared to tackle powerful vested interests during his successful period as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, a brief which included broadcasting policy and with which he engaged in an intelligent and resolute manner. He was very much prepared to draw on his deep convictions regarding justice, civil and human rights, opposition to imperialism and to war, to take up often unpopular or little reported causes and issues, on national and international fronts, and to withstand attacks from misguided, or ignorant, or malign commentators, including powerful governments.

Why would a man like Michael D put so much emphasis on a project – that of creating true republic – that has been buried for 90 years? A look at his background reveals at least part of the answer. He is the son of a man who fought for the Irish Republic of the Proclamation of 1916, not just in the War of Independence, but in the brutal and divisive Civil War that raged after the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty and its ratification in 1922. His father, being on the losing side in that Civil War, suffered in terms of his health as a prisoner, and found it very difficult to find employment after his release in an Irish Free State ruled by anti-republican counter-revolutionaries. That was an experience common to very many on the republican side, both men and women, and through his father, Michael D. knew some of those people too. The Higgins family suffered greatly because of this, and so Michael D carries memories of not just his father’s sacrifice and of the damage his courageous participation in the struggle to establish the republic caused to him, but of the entire family’s sacrifice and suffering. It is a very emotional area for him.

In occasional private conversations, some short and others more substantial, mostly relating to modern Irish history, culture and society, Michael D has always come across to me as someone who is inspired by James Connolly to a far greater extent than anyone else in top echelons of the Labour Party. Perhaps it is this that has had him at times at the margins of the Labour Party. He is sometimes referred to as being the left-wing of the party, although there are a small number of other TDs who also occupy that position – but far too few.

Arising out of his presidency, the centenary celebrations of the founding of the Irish Labour Party which will occur in 2012 may become far more interesting than they might otherwise have been. In opening up public discussions on what sort of republic we want to build, and on the role citizens will have in that republic, Michael D may influence, from outside the Labour Party, the ideological direction that the party moves in over the next few years. And then in the following year we will have the centenary of the 1913 Lock-out in which the Labour Party’s founders, James Connolly and Jim Larkin, took the leading roles on the workers’ side, adding yet more pressure to today’s Labour Party to move towards the left.

Then, coming closer to the end of Michael D’s term in office there will be the big centenary in 2016, that of the revolution of April 24th 1916 and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. James Connolly was central to both the revolutionary action and the ideology of the Republic that that action sought to bring into being. Paragraph four of the Proclamation is, without doubt, Connolly’s work. It is, in effect, the Workers’ Republic, or at least provides the space in which that republic could be created by free citizens.

Michael D, fortunately, is the President who will, should he remain in good health, preside over the commemorations. There are few people who understand so well the deep meanings that lie in the text of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and fewer still so able to mine those meanings and ideas, and to articulate them to the citizens. While most citizens have probably not read the Proclamation – a document that was virtually suppressed because of the counter-revolution – and fewer still have delved into the deeper structure of it in terms of what it means, there is a great emotional bond between a majority of Irish citizens and the Proclamation, even if they don’t fully understand it. This emotional attachment is something that, no doubt, Michael D will draw on over the course of the next four years in the run-up to 2016. After all, the sort of true republic that he has indicated he wishes to speak about is contained, substantially, in the Proclamation.

It will be intriguing to watch how all of this plays out. There is no doubt that Michael D has thought deeply about these things and these opportunities, and about how he might influence events through the power of his ideas and of his words. He knows that there is an enormous amount of goodwill for him out there among the public, that Sinn Féin, a party on an upward curve, will support him in his efforts to create a true republic and to face down a corrupt political class of which top media operatives are a part and which Sinn Féin has no love for, that in his former party, Labour, many among the parliamentary party but especially among the ordinary membership hold him in special affection, and that, crucially, history has given him significant centenaries and commemorations during his term in office.

The future looks brighter now for those who have been waiting a lifetime for a real republic, owned, as Plato suggested it must be over two thousand years ago, by the citizens. He will need allies as he sets about his project. As the ramifications of what establishing of a real republic entails become more apparent to powerful vested interests, including among those main-stream media operatives and commentators who act as spokes-men/women for the so-called ‘elite’ and the wealthy, President Higgins will need those allies even more, and will need them to make their voices heard.

This is a presidency with enormous potential. It demands steadfast commitment on the part of Michael D to see it bear fruit, and it demands equal commitment from those of us who believe the Irish revolution of 1916 must be brought to completion, and that the Irish Republic must stand proudly in the world as James Connolly wished it would-  a sovereign, enlightened, progressive republic acting as a beacon of hope to the oppressed people of the world. Its day has come.


Occupy The Citizens

The primary objective of anyone or any group who want to promote a new way of seeing the world in which they live, of effecting change, must be to galvanise support, to rally citizens to the cause, to bring not just a moral force to bear on an issue but to show that a numerical force of citizens exists in support of the argument advanced for change.

One of the contentious positions occupying the Occupy movement, and particularly, it seems, the Occupy Dame Street pioneers, is that of whether to allow an involvement in the protest by various groups, from political parties to other pressure groups including trade unions. That is not surprising given reasonable fears that attempts may be made to ‘take over’ what has been begun by a collective of  individuals who have roused themselves to make a stand and have shown courage and commitment to do so when others who might have been expected to live up to their own rhetoric failed to recognise the opportunity and step forward themselves.

There are sound reasons for being wary of political party involvement. It would be ridiculous if the three main parties, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, were to show up to pretend support for the aims of the occupiers of the Central Bank Plaza, given their support for the very institutions and ideology that the Occupy movement opposes (and Labour is no different on that to the other parties other than possibly on the scale of neo-liberal inspired austerity).

There is a case to be made, however, not to exclude other parties who have a track record in opposing both the power of the same institutions, and capitalist ideology – of which neo-liberalism is a particularly pernicious form, especially those parties that have advanced proposals to restructure politics, the economy and society in favour of the mass of ordinary citizens and who have expressly opposed the various world and regional bodies such as the IMF and ECB and their policies. Ground rules could be laid down for the inclusion of supporters of these various parties, such as on the use of party banners and on the issue of the right of the Occupy Dame Street pioneers to control their protest themselves and the ground they occupy, without any attempt by any third party to take over on either front.

There is another body that represents a massive number of people on the island, the vast majority of whom are ordinary citizen-workers (and by extension their families and dependents). The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has a combined membership across the island of  over 800,000, with in excess of 600,000 in the 26 Counties. A significant percentage of those members, and their dependents, are suffering from the effects of the insane policies of various right-wing governments from the 1990s to today, with many suffering very badly.

There are valid criticisms to be made of the way trade unions operate. But it must be pointed out that there has been a sustained campaign in the right-wing corporate and state media against the trade unions and against trade union leaders, much of it grossly unfair and unreasonable, all of it inspired by an anti-worker agenda fuelled by vile neo-liberalism, a regressive, brutal ideology that seeks to reverse the gains made by workers through trade union activity over the past century or so.

The reasons for that campaign are obvious. After all, without the unions it would be very easy to drive ordinary workers’ pay and conditions down even more than has been the case over the past four years, thus enhancing the wealth of the corporations and the privileges that those who enjoy high salaries and perks – the professional class – enjoy. The freedom to fire those who do not enjoy the protection of a trade union is exemplified in the case of the Talk-Talk workers in Waterford, whereas the Aviva workers, with trade union representation have at least had some concessions to their dignity and their rights as workers. There are many more examples on both sides. Without the backing of a trade union the power relationship between the employer and the worker works entirely in favour of the employer.

On the issue of criticisms of trade union leaders, there is certainly a case to be made that union leaders should receive a salary commensurate with the work they do as leaders of large organisations but in tune with the pay that their members receive – much as should be the case with public representatives in the Dáil and Seanad – the parliament, and with public servants on the higher scales. Contrary to the picture painted of them, most in the leadership of the trade unions, and the Congress, are good and decent men and women, whose ethics and standards compare more than favourably with those of media owners and their hacks, and politicians, business leaders, bankers, bishops, lawyers and other members of the political class.

Another point worth bearing in mind when considering criticism of trade union leaders is that they, in theory at least, are the servants of their membership. Who are their members? Contrary to what one might imagine, their members are not, in general, left-wing by nature, although many are. A significant number of trade union members support, and may even be members of, right-wing parties such as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and of Labour which has consistently enabled right-wing parties to achieve power. It is right to expect trade unions to be radical, and left-wing – since that is consistent with their origins and their expressed ethos – but the leadership is not autonomous, it must have the support of the membership from which it cannot alienate itself.

What the trade union movement can bring to the Occupy Dame Street campaign, and other affiliated campaigns around the country, is a numerical backing that protests and marches need for public impact, and also a valuable and free publicity machine to spread the essential message of the Occupy campaign to a wider audience in the absence of a media that is fair, balanced and interested in real democracy. The unions may also offer practical assistance on-site and with printing and distribution, etc. They should be asked to do so.

For the Occupy Dame Street pioneers to succeed in bringing about change it is necessary to make their movement a mass movement. Nothing will be achieved by avoiding worthwhile publicity and consciousness-raising among the wider population who, as citizens, deserve to be made aware of the arguments being put forward by the campaigners for revolutionary change. If the movement does not expand by gaining the support of a mass of people it will wither on the vine, to the delight of the political class. That is what they are hoping for, far preferable from their PR point of view than sending in state police to clear the site.

There are other organisations who would also be helpful, including community groups, unemployed workers’ groups, various anti-poverty bodies and those who work for the rights of older people (whose capacity to protest successfully is proven), etc. These are well worth encouraging to become involved. They represent citizens, after all, and citizens who might be very sympathetic to the cause.

Decisions on these matters are entirely for the pioneering campaigners down at the Central Bank in Dame Street to resolve. Anyone who believes in what they are trying to achieve will hope that the decisions they make will be wise and will lead to success. Occupy Dame Street owns the Dublin campaign at the moment. The decisions they make will decide if they can sustain that ownership into the future.

All revolutions start in the imagination, all begin with a small body of committed revolutionaries. But all successful revolutions depend on the support of a significant mass of citizens who come to the ideas that the revolutionaries originate and develop. For that to happen then dissemination of those ideas and the arguments that support them is vital, using every available medium.

Occupy The Citizens!

Occupy The Republic

The publicity surrounding the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ campaign, and its offshoots across the USA and similar movements in other countries across the world, suggests that politics is being parked to one side so as to attract a diverse range of individuals in support of the campaign’s central aim – of taking control back from the powerful and super-wealthy 1% and redistributing both the power and the wealth among the other 99% so as to create some form of genuine democracy and much fairer and more equitable societies.

These aims are entirely laudable and rational, and, despite the constant assertions from various right-wing ‘elites’ (their self-serving word) that only they have the expertise and knowledge to govern and to administer public policies and programmes, these aims are also entirely sustainable. After all, is it not the case that responsibility for all of the major military, economic and political disasters over the past century and beyond can be laid right at the door of the various ‘elites’ and their ‘expert’ advisers? Only a self-serving, powerful social deviant or a supportive fool would suggest that human beings who manage very complex personal and community lives do not have the capacity through acting in alliance with others for the common good to make decisions that are at least no worse than the calamitous decisions made by the existing ‘elites’, and likely far better.

Many older political activists and agitators will have been pessimistic over the past decade and more at the prospects for the development of new radical social movements willing to shake off the illusion of increased personal wealth and ready to tackle the problem of political and economic neo-liberal hegemony in North America and Europe. They need not have been pessimistic since if history teaches us anything it is that history is composed of cycles, of highs and lows, of periods of apparent peace and of periods of conflict, of oscillations between what we describe as the politics of the left and of the right.

So certain were neo-liberals and neo-conservatives of their ultimate triumph over the forces of the left following the fall of the Iron Curtain that one of them, Stanford University academic Francis Fukuyama, was prepared in 1992 to declare the following nonsense with a straight face, and was lionised in many quarters for it – “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” That sound that we can hear in the background is of furious back-pedalling, but too late – the hubris of the political right is the cause of their undoing as will become apparent as this latest cycle unfolds.

Many of those older political activists and agitators will shake their heads at the notion of a de-politicised or apolitical movement for fundamental reform (in other words a revolutionary movement). They need not worry. What is going on is a process of attracting support from populations that have been subjected to many decades of media-delivered propaganda, populations that are unsure of the consequences of challenging authority, of stepping ‘over the mark’. That is how hegemony works most effectively through what Elisabeth Noelle-Neuman described as a Spiral of Silence in which individuals, confronted with potentially contentious issues, scan the horizon to determine what they think is a social consensus out of which they are disinclined to break because of fear of social isolation or physical injury. The Spiral of Silence is broken, and with it hegemony, when voices begin to challenge authority and increase and magnify as more people find their courage. That process can be very rapid. The fall of the Iron Curtain is one case in support of this, Tunisia another.

Canadian blogger Shafeen Charania writes that “Things don’t suddenly hit the fan, there is a lead up that gets to the point when people, despite the risk, say “Enough.” It is at this point that revolutions are born, that causes are formed, that the Man is made to pucker. As the unjust disparity grows, the people’s desire to hold on to the status quo shrinks to the point where what was once unthinkable becomes thinkable. Unjust disparity is the gap between being controlled and being in control”.

If the ‘Occupy’ movement is successful in maintaining and then expanding its support then that may take care of the question ‘how are we going to get there?’. But that leaves unanswered the question ‘Where do we want to go?’. In effect it is the ‘the cart before the horse’ scenario. As things stand the movement has some nebulous idea of the need for a transformation in the way political and economic power is wielded and its effect on societies and individuals, but that revolutionary idea needs to have a focus, a destination, a ‘place’ where a majority of people are prepared and interested enough to go, and it must be a journey that has the possibility of a successful conclusion in as short a space of time as is possible to avoid the potential for a political vacuum that may be filled by malign forces. History can illuminate that journey.

At another time, in what seems like a strange land, the then ninety-niners lived in conditions not dissimilar to but very much more exaggerated than those that today’s ninety-niners rebel against. They were governed by a succession of tyrannical kings and governments that constantly shifted wealth from the poor to the rich, stole the ninety-niners’ lands and resources, used famine as a genocidal tool, and the noose, the sword and the gun as a means of suppressing dissent. The tyrants did all they could to destroy the indigenous laws, culture and language,  used the ninety-niners as slaves at home and abroad, ensured that living conditions were, for the vast majority, utterly sub-standard and that hope for a better future seemed an impossible illusion.

Eventually, just as today, a small number of ninety-niners determined that change must come, that they would attempt to transform the lives of all ninety-niners in their land by creating revolutionary change. A journey would be required, and all involved knew that it would be an extremely hazardous one, that some would make it to the destination but that others would fall in the making of the journey. But what would be the destination? It surely had to be one worth reaching, if the human cost was to be high. No point in making a journey that ended up, more or less, at the point of departure.

What those ninety-niners did was to draw up a set of requirements for a new society, which are, again, not dissimilar in many respects to the requirements that today’s ninety-niners are articulating – justice, equity, freedom, genuine democracy by ownership of government by citizens, and prosperity. Oh, and for good measure, those ninety-niners of old added a truly revolutionary notion, that the government would work, not just for the prosperity of its citizens, but for their happiness!

Now, not only did the ninety-niners of old know they had a journey to make, but that there was a destination worth arriving at. If today’s ninety-niners are to be successful then it is imperative that they set down the broad requirements of the renovated societies that they wish to achieve – only then will they have the potential to attract the mass support needed to overcome seemingly impossible odds. To do that they must lay out some sort of vision for their particular society in the country in which they are campaigning.

In their deliberations, today’s ninety-niners might examine the template for a better society drawn up by the ninety-niners of old. It may be that they might find ways of improving on it, but that is doubtful. Here is the essence of it – “The Irish Republic is a Sovereign Independent State and is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of all citizens. The Republic declares the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.

No privileged ‘elite’ outside of the rule of law; no preferment for corporate interests over the citizens’ interests; religious and civil liberties enshrined; absolute parity of esteem for all citizens without qualification on grounds of gender, race, religious persuasion, intellectual or physical ability, social class or profession/trade, etc.; control of national wealth and resources by the people; ownership of government by the citizens and not vested interests; prosperity and…happiness.

Today’s ninety-niners might well consider these ideas – would they be satisfied with a society in which these were the rule of law and enshrined and underpinned in a costitution? If not, how are they to be improved on? It is reasonable to suggest that the vision of the ninety-niners of old represents an achievable destination, and that the journey need not take an inordinate amount of time to complete.

Occupying Dame Street is a worthwhile and admirable thing to do. It could be the first step towards a bigger objective with a slightly different slogan – ‘Occupy The Republic’.

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