The Lights are on but Nobody is Home

Irish people have grown to expect a lack of compassion, bordering on belligerence from their government. As we seen inequality in Ireland continuously grow over the past number of years many of us have grown angry at what looks like a complacent government turning a blind eye to the suffering of poor and working class people. Why is it that the Irish state seems so unresponsive to the needs of the ordinary public, but can be decisive and immediate when it comes to meeting the needs of the financial elites? There is ample evidence to suggest that the government can act fast when it comes to a banking crisis but when it comes to a crisis like homelessness the state suddenly becomes slow and unresponsive. Surely it’s not too much to ask that the state show the same decisive and fast acting attitude to crises effecting ordinary people as it has been seen to do with crises of those on the top.

There are a number of reasons why the Irish state in general is so unresponsive to the public sphere, it has indeed been a hallmark problem in the Irish democratic project since the founding of the state. A complete analysis of how we got ourselves into a position where the people elected to govern us seem more interested in appealing to multinationals and rebuilding Ireland’s reputation as a neoliberal utopia in the eyes of the world, rather than responding to the needs and crises in public life would be an interesting and worthwhile project. I would like to add a few ideas as to how we got here as a way to get us thinking about the problem.

When thinking about the unresponsiveness of the Irish state the first thing to consider is the founding of the state. Although you might think that whatever happened at the founding of the state has well and truly passed by now the problem is that what gets built into the state at the very beginning has a way of lodging itself into the DNA of how the state is run, and can be very hard to change.

The modern Irish state was born out of an explosive rebellion, a violent war of independence and was immediately thrown into a bloody civil war. A new fledgling government in this environment was going to have to conduct its business in a very restricted way. The first governments of the Irish state met in secret, behind locked doors and armed guards. A government born in this manner was of course going to be closed off to the world going on outside it. The environment in which the state was created imprinted a cold and hostile relationship between the government and the public and the residual effects of this are still with us today.

Another factor to take into consideration is the culture among those in power. We have a new type of government now with a Fine Gael minority backed up by some independents and this new structure is still trying to find its feet and work through its teething problems. However we need to keep in mind that many of the individuals who hold the most powerful offices in the state are coming out of a time when they had the biggest government majority in the history of the state. It is uncontroversial and nothing new to suggest that this has breed a degree of arrogance and complacency among those in power who are used to being able to get their own way without having to pay much attention to public opinion. The practices of guillotining debates and pushing legislation through that we have seen over the life time of the past government has left many higher ups in Fine Gael with an attitude of ignoring the public which they are still carrying with them.

The final point I want to make is somewhat circular. The optics that suggest that the Irish government are only concerned with the wellbeing of the golden circle of financial elites has led the public to expect a certain type of behaviour from the state. We see the state sending members of the Gardaí to investigate welfare fraud while we haven’t seen anyone being seriously punished for the reckless behaviour in banks that led to the collapse that has left so many dependent on welfare. The optics of this has meant that many people now hold a hostile attitude towards the state and would rather stand in opposition to it rather than engaging with it. This is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The public view the government as ignoring them and come to expect it. The lack of action taken by the public when the government bring in a measure which is deeply unpopular then allows the government to continue to ignore the will of the public. An example of this would be the household charge. This was a deeply unpopular measure among the public, but because we expect the government to do deeply unpopular things we failed to adequately challenge them. This tension grew and grew until the water chargers were introduced and the public exploded in opposition to them. Many people who marched against water charges were really marching with the pent up anger that came from years of unpopular government measures that were brought in despite the will of the public at large.

While this does not fully explain why the Irish state is so unresponsive to the Irish public, these three points are important pieces of the puzzle. The history of the state, the culture of those at the top and public expectations are all important reasons why the government appears to be so out of touch with the public.

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House Prices – The Golden Calf

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Again this year house prices have continued their rise towards the stratosphere, getting further and further out of reach of us mere mortals. This is in a context where 20% of households in the Republic of Ireland owe more than they own. The largest part of most of these household debts are going towards actually paying for the house, weather it be through rent or mortgage. With all the misery that abounds all over this island much of it can be traced back to one root cause. House prices.

The concept of increasing wealth through rising property prices has become the golden calf of our times. The unrelenting hunt to increase the value of our properties has blinded us to the misery of those who are actually inside the property. We refuse to see that our actions to get the best price for our property is providing the individual building blocks for a system that is ruining lives. Yet we still believe that making our houses more expensive is a “good” thing. This strange belief that we have somehow incredibly managed to hang on to through the property crash and the resulting difficulties, continues to blind us to the fact that people, the beings for which houses exist (not the other way around), are struggling to keep roofs over their heads. Giant mortgages and out of control rents are pushing more and more people onto the streets.  But the shine off the golden calf of house prices seems to be impairing our view of the sleeping bags on the streets.

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Boom and bust and boom again. The facts and reality that were the results of the last property bubble should have thought us a lesson  about the actuality of increasing house prices but instead, they are ignored in the blinding glow of the golden calf.

Perhaps it is a post-colonial hangover, some kind of complex that makes us need to have OUR property valued so highly. Or maybe it’s the almost divine nature afforded to private property in a capitalist economy and market culture. It could even be the massive power and influence that property developers have etched out for themselves in our country. Or maybe it might be as simple as the fact that there are so many landlords in the dáil. But somehow we continue to refuse to learn the lesson that rising house prices are causing real human misery and despair, and for the sake of some already wealthy property owner’s portfolio, it’s really not worth it.

The property market crash of 2008 and the resulting economic hardships should have been the tragedy to make us learn this lesson, but the farce continues.

What does Ireland want?

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Every election season a lot of money gets spent by hopeful candidates in trying to figure out what the electorate wants. Pollsters, market researchers, PR gurus all find themselves inundated with work coming up to elections trying to understand the feelings and desires of the people. The anecdotal phrase of “Sure politicians only tell you what you want to hear at election times” has a lot of truth to it, so maybe we should look at what the politicians are saying in their election campaigns and try to figure out from the messages that seem to be working what does Ireland want.

At this stage it seems that two clear camps with two distinct messages are forming. One camp is headed up by the government parties and has quite a clear message, delivered neatly and uniformly by candidates across the two government parties and some others. They talk of security and stability in a way that gives off the impression that they have been training and practicing for this election event for some time now. The other one is very different, not only in its message but in its delivery also. It is being delivered in a slightly less polished way and by a number of groups that might have little or no attachment to each other. However there is a coherent theme running through the message of all those who belong to this camp. They talk of change, ending austerity politics and a new society that will be fairer and offer more opportunities to those who have been left behind by our current way of running society.

From the first camp we see literature, posters and adverts littered with words like stability, security and recovery. At first glance they seem to be offering a steady hand to guide us through a rocky terrain. While their negative message seems to be a constant series of warnings about the threats and dangers of any alternative to what they are offering.

Clearly this messages is speaking to some people, as is reflected by the popularity in the polls of the government parties. Although their popularity isn’t as high as it used to be it is certainly still running a campaign and carrying a message that is resonating with some people. This would suggest that there is a significant proportion of the population who are understandably afraid of losing more than has already been lost through the recession. Today, we can see desperate people in seemingly hopeless situations all around us, on the screens we see massive movements of migrants whose only positions are whatever they can drag with them on their journey, in the streets we see numerous figures sleeping in doorways and begging for the spare change of the passers-by, and in the papers we hear the stories of people losing their homes, breaking their families apart in search of work or countless other difficult circumstances. For those people not in these situations of course they are afraid of losing more, the concept of disposable people has become common and all too real in the past few years and we are all terrified of becoming someone whose life is disposable.

The alternative message we see coming from this election speaks of change and revolution, transforming politics and brining a new and fresh approach. They seem to be offering a new way of doing politics that will bring about a new and “fairer” society. While negatively talking of the establishment and blaming them for the recession and austerity.

This message seems to resonating with a much bigger than anticipated audience who are hungry for change. There is a growing sense of excitement and enthusiasm around the possibility of creating a new alternative style of politics and society. A social appetite for reform has been building in our culture for a number of years now and this is not the first time we have seen politicians running on a platform of “hope” and “change”. This election season shows that this sentiment has certainly arrived in Ireland as the message coming from the camp of politicians promoting change has a substantial following.

It should be no surprise that this kind of message is doing well. Having gone through a though recession and austerity many Irish people do want to see a change. There is an entire generation who maturated alongside the recession and eight years of austerity. Their only experience of the old “established” way of doing politics, whether we call it “democratic capitalism”, “neo-liberalism” or some other name, is of the hardships of its worst moments. Many voters in this election won’t have any memorable experience of participating in the Celtic Tiger. So it is clear to see why so many want a change of approach to how society is governed.

If we try to figure out “What Ireland wants?” from this election there seems to be an image of two different Irelands. One is terrified of losing what little is has and is crying out for security and stability, while the other is desperate to try something new in order to rebalance society. During elections there will always be some hopeful candidate willing to tell people what they want to hear and we can clearly hear both these desires being catered for from this election. While we might be being promised what we want, the important thing to remember is that all sides are speaking the language of an election campaign, and so are bound to disappoint.

We don’t need a recovery, we need a reconstruction

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The financial crash of 2008 was the single most traumatic event to happen to Irish society in living memory. The austerity that followed has been felt by everyone and been devastating to the lives of many. From job losses to the closure of businesses, from evictions and repossessions to a homelessness crisis, the effects have brought many to their knees. As a society and culture we have been traumatised to the core, we lost our identity as the Celtic tiger nation and many of our unarticulated beliefs and presuppositions have been called into question or destroyed. Only now are we reaching a point as a society where we can begin to process the trauma and devastation we witnessed, and this provides us with the conditions for the possibility of the greatest opportunity we are ever likely to see.

When a society suffers this kind of shock and devastation, the opportunity to question and re-evaluate the principles that held it together not only becomes possible but also necessary. When everything was going well and things were booming nobody had the time or inclination to stop and question the values that we were being put at the centre of our society. This type of questioning can only happen when things fall apart and people begin to realise that we never did have it all figured out. This has been true of every society in history, when things are running along smoothly there is no impulse to question or challenge the ruling ideology, it’s only after society trauma (either prolonged and sustained or quick and shocking) that this impulse appears.

Only after the devastating experience of the Peloponnesian war and the military dictatorship that followed Socrates and his “Question Everything” mantra could appear to the Greeks as an important person. He would call into question everything they thought they knew about themselves and their society.  Ireland is in desperate need of this kind of Socratic inquiry. We need to begin to examine ourselves, question our experts and scrutinise the ideas that lie at the very core of our understanding of ourselves and our society. Then be utterly ruthless with what we discover and anything that we find to have been resting on shaky foundations should be pushed over.

The marriage equality referendum is an example of this kind of inquiry. On a societal level Irish people questioned themselves and their presuppositions about homosexuality. For many in the younger generations this was a relatively painless task. But for older people who had grown up in an Ireland where what the church said was held with great reverence and importance, the marriage equality referendum was a moment when they had to examine themselves and where their unarticulated beliefs came from, and weather or not they were willing to hold on to them. This is no small task, for many it required fighting against a lifetime of training to unquestionally obey the given set of values and forcing oneself to think independently. Thankfully the marriage referendum passed, however the new decisions that need to be made about what is Ireland’s future is to look like and what it will mean to be Irish are only going to get more difficult. Now we must start questioning the values and ideas that we all accepted and obeyed during the Celtic Tiger.

Now that we have survived the initial shock of the economic collapse, we can gain the perspective we need to see the egotistical, cupidinous and short sighted thinking and values that carried us on this path that led to devastation.  We need to find out what is in our national character that drives us to the kinds of extremes we seen in our behavior during the boom, and in turn brings the inevitable crashes and destruction. Whatever it is needs to be fearlessly removed. We don’t need a recovery; we need a reconstruction! This can only be done through a process of a deep and fearless self-examination.

A reflection of this kind needs to be carried out on an individual, communal and societal level if there is to be any hope of its success. It is by no means an easy task, as W.B. Yeats said ‘It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield’. However it is a task that is necessary.  We will need to take a courageous and comprehensive look at ourselves if we have any hope to avoid repeating the same old mistakes that got us here.

During the election season we can all get too wrapped up in questioning politicians and supporters of parties we oppose, and demanding answers of them. But our first step should be to demand answers of ourselves. Something not many people realise about democracy is that unless we develop as a community a clear and realistic vision of a identity and future that we can all accept and force our representatives to live up , then we run the risk of letting other forces create this vision for us. The signs of this happening are already here with Ireland being marked as “the best small country in the world in which to do business”. I think it should be obvious to us all that this vision did not come out of some grassroots democratic discourse from the ordinary people of Ireland. Rather this vision came about because of the lack of that type of discourse.

The window of opportunity to benefit from the crash in a way that will bring about structural changes that can lead to a better society is now open, and we should jump at the opportunity before the chance is gone and we have to wait for the next social trauma to rock Ireland to its core. It’s not a rejection of the old ways of doing things but an examination of them.  The Celtic tiger brought all sorts of new conveniences and positive changes to our lives, but it also brought with it a tendency to become greedy and short sighted, obsessed with material positions and unthoughtful in our relationships with others. We can bring the benefits of our old ways of thinking and values as long as we recognise their negatives too.  In short we can let the phones be smart, as long as we learn to be wise.

A guide to dealing with canvassing politicians

canvassing kennyWith the new election season underway it’s time for all of us to prepare for the stream of political hopefuls to come canvassing on our door steps. This strange experience has an unsettling quality, where someone who you seen on the news and likely spent some if not all of the past five years complaining about presents themselves on your doorstep and asks how things are going. It is enough to throw most people. Of course the politicians are only interested in showing their face on your doorstep because it has a proven track record of increasing votes, but it presents us with an important opportunity to communicate with those who will be in power for the next five years. So let’s use it wisely.

Undoubtable many will already be preparing a torrent of angry criticisms to shout in their faces, and certainly many people would be justified in doing that. However, we should know by now that this tactic gets us nowhere. This is something that anyone who has been in politics for a while has had more than enough training to ignore. Sure it might annoy them temporarily and might feel therapeutic to get anger off our chests but really it achieves nothing. Angry rants to canvassers fits perfectly into the system as it is and does not represent any kind of an opportunity to change anything. The ballot box is the place to express anger with a politician, a face to face meeting gives us an opportunity to do something more important, change their attitude.

The first thing that we need to remind ourselves is that more often than not, even the most career minded establishment politician started their political life with an unusually large desire to help people and serve their communities .It might be hard to imagine now, with the all too common image of a politician who has become corrupted or has lost interest in anything other than the future of themselves and their inner circle, but even some of the political figures who most perfectly fit this disgusting image, at one point in their lives were ideological, fresh faced candidates who believed that they could make life better for those in their constituencies. Of course there are other motivations for people to get into politics, everything from family pressure to ambitious greed can be a motivating factor, but more often than not, most people only take the risk of voluntarily putting themselves at the mercy of public opinion because they have a deep passion and belief that they can help their communities. It takes a lot of courage to put your face on posters all over your home town, only someone with a lot of motivation and enthusiasm would do this. It is this self-sacrificing motivation and noble passion with which many in our broken political class started out their public lives with, which we should attempt to reignite when we meet them on our doorsteps.

The problem is that most of these long serving career politicians have been working for too much time in a frustrating and broken system of government, where one quickly learns that to get anything achieved compromises must be made. And so, by the time anyone in this system reaches a level where they can wield any real power they have already been compromised and the noble ideals and visions that brought them into public life now seem like a far off hazy memory. The sad truth is that by the time someone in political life can get into the establishment they likely either have been worn down, have caved in, sold out or have just plain gave up, and by this stage they are all too concerned with their careers, their public image and some narrowly defined vision of success to live up to their original ideals and visions. All they can focus on is simply winning the next election, and the fog of bureaucratic and systematically frustrating politics blocks their sight of why it was important to them to win an election in the first place. So now we have the phenomenon of a career politician, who is running in elections simply because that’s what they do. There is no great passion in them to serve their constituency anymore, nor do they have a vision of the future that they are passionate about, but before any of this can be realised or brought to the surface of their consciousness their names are on the ballot.

This figure of the career politician is easily recognisable in this day and age, and many of them are more than likely going to be arriving on your doorstep in the coming days. So what is the proper response to this kind of a character? Well it is not to allow frustrations to boil over as we said already. Instead we need to be realistic and recognise that despite whatever we say and however we feel, many of these people are going to be our representatives again after the election. Because of the way our democracy is constructed the chances are that the same old recognisable faces will be going right back up to the Dáil. So we should use the opportunity of meeting them out canvasing to try and bring them back to that place where they started their political life. We should be trying to reignite their passion and commitment to service and people. Engaging them on as human a level as is possible in such an artificial meeting, and try to find out what the flame was that got them involved in politics in the first place, and if there is any smouldering ash of it left after their years of the frustrating reality of politics.

So here is our guide to dealing with canvasing career politicians during the election.

  1. Whenever your doorbell rings between now and the election take a big deep breath before answering it.
  2. If it is a career politician remind yourself that beneath their politician exterior there is a human being in there somewhere.
  3. Avoid discussing their party’s proposals for the future. (Experience tells us these are nothing more than a hastily put together list of things that their team of marketers thinks you want to hear, and will more than likely never be acted on)
  4. Ask about when they first ran for office and what drove them to it.
  5. Sympathise with them as a person who is in a horrible job that would wear anyone down.
  6. Encourage them to ask themselves whether the passion that drove them to start as a politician is still there, and whether or not there could be someone more suited to the job.

It may be absolutely futile, but if we want politics to change we need to try something new.

 

Recovery from what?

From behind the hastily erected security barriers surrounding City West in Dublin, television cameras and journalists offer the public the only access they can gleam into the Ard Fheis of our leading government party. Inside the hotel recognisable faces and influential individuals are buzzing and eager to impress. The most frequent word on their lips, recovery. They are celebrating their initiating of a recovery and convincing camera lenses that they are the key holders to the doors of it’s success and stability.

But behind all the rhetoric, bursts of whooping applause and determined tones of voice, questions are left unanswered, like a residue of yesterday’s banquet stubbornly clinging on despite all the elbow grease and washing up liquid. “What kind of recovery? When will we be fully recovered? And what are we recovering from?” we might legitimately ask if we weren’t forbidden from interrupting by a wall of security fences. After all a doctor won’t tell her patient that they are recovering and stubbornly blank any follow up questions.  They will offer advice, some context, a prognosis and most importantly of all in our context a diagnosis of what went wrong in the first place.

But inside the barricaded hotel, the mood is one of cheerful back slapping, and so to get this kind of information from the leading government party we most look elsewhere.

One possible answer they did give came from a 2012 interview with Enda Kenny at the world economic forum in Davos. When asked what went wrong in Ireland, Enda seemed to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Irish people. “What happened in our country is that people simply went mad with borrowing.” he told the world. Now let’s be generous here and not assume that this was some transparent attempt to justify his own role in a painful and traumatic austerity programme. Instead  let’s give Enda the benefit of the doubt and imagine this was his genuine belief and let’s try figure out what if anything, we can say about it was right.

Firstly, it must be clear, even to Enda that this is a dramatic over simplification of the situation. Clearly not everyone went mad, or at least we have to be able to see a difference between a financial speculator who gambled millions of euros in a hunt for a quick profit, and someone who maybe took a second holiday a year. Clearly one went madder than the other. Let’s try and remain generous and assume Enda realises this and just forgot to emphasis these kinds of glaringly obvious subtleties at the time.

But people, in generally did behave strangely in the years leading up to the financial crises. We did see capitalism and consumer culture dominate more of our lives than before. And an easy access to money and what seemed, at the time at least, like good deals on loans gave us all more ability to try and join into the glitzy and glitter filled ideal life of consumerism in our own ways.

Perhaps it was the constraints of time or nerves from the camera that meant that Enda could not explain to his audience that this strangeness or “madness” was not due to the individual pathology or short-sighted stupidity of the Irish people. It was the necessary result of living under conditions that structure and systematise our understanding of the world, ourselves and each other in a way that encourages a rampant individualistic culture.

In turn this “madness” fed the system that was causing it, and served to distract ordinary people, as our striving for happiness through consumption fuelled the fire for the big financial institutions, permitting them to engage in risky behaviours that did bring about the crash. Like a vampire virus, once bitten by consumerism people became rampant driven consumers and infected those around them with their excited talk and desire of each new product that caught their imaginations.

With the majority of us acting as if whoever has the most toys when they die wins, we unwittingly contributed to the real dangers that would cause the crash. Perhaps this is what Enda meant with his succinct and down to earth phrase “people went mad”.

How did it feel on the ground? I remember saving up and being excited to buy my new mp3 player, which I bought for plenty of money. Only to see the new more advanced version come out within three weeks. This cycle of desire, expectation and disappointment embedded itself into all of our lives. When we heard of the next big thing it would instil an insatiable desire in us. We would not only want it but feel like we needed the new product that we previously didn’t even know existed. The expectation of how our lives would magically change with this new product would come to dominate our imagination completely. (When I have my new laptop I’ll be so much more productive, when I get my holiday home I will finally be able to have the holidays I always dreamed of, my life will never be the same again once I get this new phone). Then, in reality, after our purchase, we would see the price drop, the newer version come out, or the previous formats wouldn’t work on our newer models. Whatever it was, we were invariably disappointed and left desiring something new, which again would promise happiness and come to dominate our imagination. This cyclical process would repeat itself over and over, all the while giving a financial elite more and more profits to engage in riskier behaviour with.

At the same time it was as if the concept of money got invested with more and more meaning and reverence every day. It became like a totem pole which got more sacred with every new worshiper. Money came to be seen as the key to human happiness and more of a divine entity that a mutually agreed upon system of exchange and bartering.  This, of course, naturally changed how we viewed those who were trusted to handle large amounts of our new divine entity. It elevated them to the status of gods who could do no wrong. Each time one of them would turn a billion euro profit into two billion it was as if we were witnessing a miracle. They amassed more and more of this entity which held the promise of human happiness and acted as the key to our desires. As a result, those in power were forced to hold the financial institutions and their human representatives in great reverence and allow them free rein to gamble it all as they seen fit. After all they seemed good at successfully creating more of the divine entity (which was cementing itself in our understanding as the purpose of life), which would trickle down to us through bank loans and waged labour. And in any case who were our representatives to put restraints on those who controlled the key to our desires and happiness?

Perhaps this is what Enda meant. If so, and if the need for recovery is so intense and the crises was caused by our “madness”, then what dangerous behaviours should we stop engaging in so as we don’t need to go back into recovery ever again? We need to down grade the concept of money in our own minds.  Take away its sacred power and reinvest our meaning and values into something safer. There are better outlets for this energy out there, which have much more of a chance of delivering on the promises of happiness that money just wasn’t able to.  Family, community, spirituality are only a few possible options. So let’s evolve past the consumer culture, choose some alternatives, and reject the promises of happiness from money and never need this kind of recovery again.