Irish writers - outsiders no more

Thursday, 18 March 2010 00:02

Irish writers are more insiders than outsiders now. We have the Arts Council to give us bursaries, albeit much reduced since the Depression began; we have Aosdána to support us in our old age; we have Ireland Literature Exchange to help our work into translation, there are grants for travel, there’s Writers in the Schools, all of the county councils and urban councils sponsor events and there are independent festivals. Most writers teach creative writing and if nothing else all the reading groups and workshops serve to lighten the burden of isolation that writing entails. I’m not saying that any of this is wrong, or unnecessary – writers have to make a living too, and government should invest in art – but it means that writers are a cherished part of the culture industry. The sad fact is, we are no longer outsiders, though we like to think of ourselves that way.

We all know the simile of Plato''s cave. A gang of people sit at the back in the darkest part of the cave. Between them and the light there is a screen onto which are projected shadows of people and things. Because they have lived all their lives in the cave, these people believe that the shadows thrown on the screen are the world. People claiming to be from outside the cave are, at best, regarded as outsiders or cranks, at worst as dangerous subversives. It''s a tempting image to describe the Ireland we live in, but it would be a false one too. False, because Plato''s cave dwellers were born there; they’d had grown up knowing nothing else. We, on the other hand, have been outside our cave. We’ve been to countries where the images thrown upon the screen are seen for what they are, the images that power and wealth throw at us to keep us off their backs, bread and circuses, brain fodder for the proles.

So, what happened to us? Part of the problem is that in Ireland we''ve had politicians, political parties, elections and referendums but we''ve never had politics. That''s politics with a large P. What do I mean by that?

Politics with a large P is a way of seeing, more than a party allegiance. It is, if you like, an analysis, a critique.

So how does a Big P political person see things?

Well, for example in 2007 we had 330 people with a so-called ''net worth'' in excess of 30 million, and the number of mere millionaires increased by 10% in that year. We went, in the space of 40 years, from levying a surtax on the super-rich to politely asking them to pay any little bit at all. If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do, and if you haven’t got a ha’penny then god bless you.

Now small p political people mainly want to know which parties these people donate their money to, and do they pay tax and do they cheat to get rich.

But the big P person asks a different question. The fundamental question for them is: Who is this country for?

That question is what distinguishes small p politics from big P politics. Small p politics is all about who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out and who’s up next. Big P politics is about big concepts – the system we live under, the inequality we experience, ideas like power and citizenship and justice.

So who is this country for?

Well, it''s the genius of the neoliberal system that we live under that we have begun to answer that question with ‘the economy’. Who is this country for? It''s the economy stupid, as Bill Clinton said. The economy is reality. Never mind neighbourliness, community, solidarity, citizenship, creativity, liberty equality or fraternity – it’s the economy stupid. Never mind the redistribution of wealth, as Geoffrey Mandelson recently declared, concentrate on the conditions for wealth generation.

I''m reminded of a scene in Charles Dickens''s Hard Times. In a classroom of Mister Gradgrind''s eminently utilitarian establishment, the circus girl Sissy Jupe is questioned by the teacher Mister McChoakumchild. The exchange goes something like this:

Now this school room is a nation, Mister McChoakumchild says. And in this nation, there are 50 millions of money. Isn''t this a prosperous nation? Girl number 20, isn''t this a prosperous nation, and ain''t you in a thriving state?

And Girl Number 20, Sissy Jupe, replies that she would need to know who had got the money and whether she had any of it.

That, Mister McChoakumchild says, has nothing to do with it.

Ours is the Mister McChoakumchild philosophy: our country is a rich one no matter who has the money or whether we have any of it.

In 2007 – only two years ago and a fateful year for economists, as we now know – the expert economists of the Bank of Ireland, in a glorious moment of hubris, reported that Ireland was the world''s second wealthiest nation. They said it in their annual ''Wealth of the Nation'' report. Not only that, but these economic experts flatly declared that they expected Ireland to be 80% wealthier in 2015 than it was in 2007. Famous last words. Pat O’Sullivan, Senior Economist with the Bank said, ‘Last year was a stellar one for wealth creation in Ireland.’ Where are you now Pat, when we need you?


The second richest nation in the world only three years ago? But, you say, we had people queuing for a quarter share of a trolley in every A&E department in Ireland? We had the crappiest broadband in Europe? We had a railway system that insisted that no matter where you wanted to go you had to go to Dublin first. We had one of the lowest spends on education in the EU. We were building houses on our floodplains, burning our bogs to make electricity and using our electricity to heat the outdoor smoking rooms of our pubs. Were we mad?

The McChoakumchild philosophy says, That has nothing to do with it. It’s the economy stupid. By the McChoakumchild measure, which Pat O’Sullivan and the Bank of Ireland subscribe to, we were the world’s second richest nation.

But returning to Sissy Jupe’s wrong answer, what does the Bank of Ireland say to her questions? Who has the money and has she any of it? Well, she doesn’t. Sissy Jupe is still a circus dog-trainers daughter and she’s still regarded as an idiot by the Gradgrind school of economics.

Sissy Jupe is, in fact, an outsider and she doesn’t know it. She’s out of the loop. The only way she’ll ever get inside the tent at the Galway races is if she’s leading a performing dog – that was her father’s circus-trick, by the way. She knows nothing about hedge funds, or spread-betting on the stock market or short-selling or derivatives – all the things that go to make a country rich, according to the McChoakumchild school. As it was in the nineteenth century, so it is today: Sissy Jupe doesn’t know who has the money and she hasn’t got any of it herself.

And that’s true, as it happens, for most of the population of this country. We thought we were insiders, but all we were inside was the arse end of a very dark cave. Oh we had a high-old time back there, some of us. And we hardly noticed the seismic shift that brought the cave down in 2008. But by god, we can feel the cold wind blowing now. Wherever the inside is today, we’re not there. We’re on the outside and we’re not even looking in.

Oddly enough, this point of view was confirmed in a recent report by, of all people, Davy’s Stockbrokers. Of course, they didn’t quite put it in the same way as I’m putting it. During the boom years, Davy’s say, we put more money into houses rather than productive capital. What they’re talking about is that the people made wealthy by the boom put their money into property rather than reinvesting it in the capitalist production process. Now that’s interesting in itself. It means the new rich were, in a way, voting against capitalism. Or to put it differently, they were expressing concern about how reliable the Irish capitalist class was in terms of returns on their money. Well, they should know. The fact is, one rich gouger didn’t trust the other rich gougers to give him his money back, so he put his faith in bricks and mortar. As Fintan O’Toole pointed out in his excellent book Ship of Fools, our capitalist class is more feudal than capitalist.

One thing, though, that the Davy’s crowd are happier about is emigration, because, I quote, ‘the quality of human capital probably has not been diluted too much by emigration of low-skilled workers’. So goodbye lads, there’s plenty of building work in Qatar, and you’re actually doing your patriotic duty by taking your low-level skills away and helping to maintain the proportions of our excellent human capital stock. My nephew and most of his buddies are in Qatar working on the buildings. I know for a fact there fairly badly off for human capital over there.

But, interestingly, and I’ll return to this later, The Irish Times put a slightly different spin on the Davy’s report: ‘Irish employees largely wasted their incomes during the boom years?’ was the headline. Irish employees? I wonder if you can remember back as far as the boom years, ladies and gentlemen? Irish employees were working all hours of the day trying to pay their mortgages. They didn’t waste their incomes on property investment, they were trying to keep a roof over their heads by and large. It isn’t employees who invest in productive capitalist assets, it’s capitalists, of which our crowd were largely plonkers of the first water.

A visit to Finland or Belgium, Davy’s said would show anybody that Ireland wasn’t a rich country. Over there they have decent hospitals, well-equipped schools and universities, public buildings, properly structured power supplies, water-works and waste management and good communications infrastructure. The scale of public works in those countries would make you cry. And, surprise, surprise, they’re more technologically advanced than we are. In Ireland, according to Davy’s, the stock of computer software actually declined during the boom years. If Ireland is a so-called Knowledge Economy, it’s only because of the outstanding work of its teachers at all levels, who work against a background of declining investment. Our knowledge stock is in the arts and in education and its products are not in decline.

But we’re still living in the back of the political cave, and we still haven’t walked past that flat-screen TV and out into the living daylight.

Because when the forecast of Pat O’Sullivan, Senior Economist with the Bank of Ireland, that we were all rich and going to be richer didn’t come true, and the arse fell out of Ireland, what did we do? Did we say who has the money? Have we any of it? Did we nationalise the banks and make them work for Ireland instead of their directors? Did we seize the 220,000 empty housing units and fill them with the 120,000 houseless families on the housing lists? Did we demand a change of government? Did we march on Dáil Eireann? Did we block roads and call a general strike? I’ve been in France for the past few weeks. That’s what they do there. There’d be red flags on every street. They have a tradition of political action. We do not.

So instead of taking to the streets what we did we do? Let me quote a recent Guardian article:

“Unlike Britain, the United States, France, Germany, China and the rest of the G20, Ireland has not rediscovered Keynes. It has spurned counter-cyclical budgetary policy and instead has been raising taxes and cutting spending in a series of budgets and mini-budgets that have sucked demand out of the economy. Lenihan has cut child benefit by 10%, public-sector pay by up to 15%, and raised prescription charges by 50%. One eighth of the working population has no job, yet unemployment benefit is being cut by 4.1%. For the young unemployed, the measures are even more draconian: the dole has been slashed by 50%.”

The public language here in Ireland has been very simple and brutal these past two years: We can no longer afford these people. But we can afford the Bank CEO and the developers and a surplus of politicians and political advisors ,and we can afford a low-tax regime where the super-rich pay 20% tax. Our generous commitment to the banks, amounts to a staggering 232% of GDP. It’s a lien on the lives of our children and their children unto the seventh generation.

Make no mistake, ladies & gentlemen: You may not be political, but the government is. It’s political with a big P. What is its politics? It’s the politics of the right. What does right-wing mean if it doesn’t mean you protect the rich at the expense of the poor?

Now, I’m not arguing that every member of Fianna Fáil has studied his or her Milton Friedman and made a rational decision to adopt his politics. No, it’s a certain caste of mind that sees all the advantage on one side of the discussion. The money to run the next campaign will not come from O’Malley Park or Kincora Park in Limerick, or Knocknaheeny and Gurranabraher in Cork. It will come from members of IBEC.

And what does IBEC want? It wants the country run like a business. It wants the government to maximise opportunity for profit. It wants to get its hands on as much publicly-owned assets as possible, including hospitals, prisons and schools – and it wants workers to give them their savings to invest in productive capital assets. It wants state monopolies divided and weakened, and preferably eliminated altogether. It wants schools to make good compliant workers out of our children and it wants consumers not citizens - once upon a time, by the way, Patrick Pearse called that kind of education system a Murder Machine.

IBEC says, in essence, that everything is a commodity and the relationship between one commodity and another is a market. This applies as well to people – what they like to call ‘human capital’ – as to actual commodities. Forget the solidarity business, all the crap from do-gooders and socialists, the touchy feely stuff from churches and social workers. Life’s a market. That’s the reality. It’s the economy stupid.

IBEC is political with a big P. It’s a right-wing political federation.

Now, I’m arguing here this afternoon that we, the citizens of Ireland, lack a framework for thinking about our problems. We’re like the cave-dwellers who, when brought out to the bright daylight declare that it’s unreal and return to the gloom of the cave and the shadows, what Yeats called the ‘ghostly paradigm of things’. We can’t see the reality that all around us the people we vote for are voting for the super-rich, that we think we’re voting for the nice man down the road, or the side that won or lost the civil war, but we’re actually voting for the Right. If we vote for the right, we’re right wing. We need to face up to that. Better again we need to stop doing it. We need to stop voting against our own best interests.

The Right Wing Consensus dominates us so thoroughly here that there’s only one word to describe it: hegemony. Hegemony is a simple but powerful concept. It means the dominance of one class of people over another, not necessarily by violence. The Greeks coined it to describe the power of Athens, which without ever sending a shipload of warriors could demand, by force of reputation alone, tribute from lesser nations. The hegemony doesn’t need to beat you over the head – it’s enough to isolate you or ignore you and drown anyone who supports you under a mountain of shit.

Now what does ‘hegemony’ mean in Ireland? It means that there are no respected alternative voices. It means that people with left-wing views keep their heads down and get on with it. It means that public discourse is dominated by powerful right-wing figures. It means that we all believe that public service is a shabby, cowardly thing by comparison with entrepreneurship, and that the public services are badly run and expensive. Let Michael O’Leary run the country, I’ve heard people say, then everything would work. I must say, though, it’s mostly said by people who don’t have to fly Ryanair.

What about our free press, the watchdog of democracy? What you need for hegemony is to control the public discussion. Of course, in a democracy you can’t simply own the press – not unless you’re Italy. But, as it happens, by and large, the press looks after that little problem itself. After all, who can afford to own a newspaper?

Well, Tony O’Reilly owns or has an interest in The Independent, The Sunday World and The Sunday Tribune. The Irish Examiner and various local newspapers are owned by the wealthy Crosby family. Ireland on Sunday is owned by the English Mail, the original founder of which, Lord Rothermere, whose children still control his empire, once wrote an editorial entitled ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’. None of these individuals or organisations can be relied upon, to say the least, to stand outside the neoliberal view. On the contrary, the dominant tone of all of them is right-wing on issues like race, trade unions, immigration, public services and economics. Only The Irish Times stands out, but The Times has, as its editor, Geraldine Kennedy, a former member of the Progressive Democrats, the most ideologically driven of all our right-wing parties here in Ireland, now, fortunately, defunct. It is heartening that people like Fintan O’Toole and Gerry Smyth still work there, and perhaps a time will come when the Times will revert to a more progressive stance. I can’t see that happening for those newspapers controlled by the Rothermeres and O’Reillys.

What about our state broadcasting company? Think about the last economist you heard on RTE. Let me give you a shortlist. George Lee was RTE’s front man on economics for years, and a fierce critic of government policy. But when he entered politics he joined Fine Gael, briefly as it happens, and Fine Gael belongs to the same European Parliament grouping as Silvio Berlsuconi whose closest allies are the rump of the old Fascist party. Then there’s David McWilliams. McWilliams has written with admiration about the founder of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, a man who famously worked with General Pinochet in Chile during the terror. When Pat Kenny needs an independent economist he generally calls on Moore McDowell. McDowell is, of course, the brother of Michael McDowell, former leader of the Progressive Democrats, and a founder member of the neo-liberal Open Republic Institute. I could go on but I won’t. The depressing thing is that these three men are what pass for oppositional voices here in Ireland.

This is just a Cook’s tour of the media here. There are exceptions within all of these institutions. A more nuanced assessment would take all day and all night but on balance it would pan out the same way. The media here is part of the right-wing consensus, in general if not in detail. We live in a right-wing hegemony. Alternative voices are rarely heard by the general public.

But once you understand the extraordinary consensus that exists around us as hegemony it’s liberating in a way. The consensus says, We have to save the banks and to do it we have to screw the poor. The consensus says we have to support the billionaires. The consensus says we should be up to our ears in mortgages and credit card debt. Greed is good. Private enterprise is another good, and public enterprise is, by definition, bad. This is common sense, the hegemony says. These are the commonsense views. Question any of this and they start to describe you as a loony leftie, a pinko or a Trotskyite and newspapers write editorials describing you as cracked or dangerous. That’s what has us where we are with one of the poorest medical systems in Europe, one of the lowest funded education systems in Europe, one of the shoddiest transport systems, one of the worst communication systems. Competition will solve all our problems? Private enterprise will save us? Give us a break.

Now I’m not here to convert you to my particular political philosophy, though you might say I’ve had a good go at it. So here’s what I have to say about writers.

Writers, like everyone else in the country, have a choice – to be with the hegemony or against it. Writers are almost uniquely in a position to change the way people see their problems. But what we’ve been doing lately is writing about the past. Our most successful novels have been historical, or have been set elsewhere. Our plays deal with our past too. This is a valuable work, make no mistake. Once upon a time we needed to reassess our pasts – think of it – the war of independence, the civil war, the Troubles, fifty years of church domination, the history of abuse. We had a lot to come to terms with and writers and artists have been in the forefront of forcing a reassessment of that. Through books and plays and poems and films we have come to terms with the fact that Ireland has never been a holy and safe place, a place of pure heroes and evil enemies. We’ve learned to live with the complexity of the past.

But now our most pressing problems are the present and the future – always difficult things for writers to come to terms with.

When I published an essay some time ago called Riding Against the Lizard – On the Need For Anger Now, in which I argued that writers should stand up and be counted, and that what was needed now was not reasonableness but anger, a lot of people, including many of my friends, pointed out very good reasons why writers should not become engaged in politics.

Politics, they said, sits badly with literature. One writer declared that no great art was ever political. Writers are here to entertain. We shouldn’t get beyond ourselves and start thinking we can make a difference in the real world. They quoted Auden’s famous line ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. Writers who are political sell badly, they said, think of all the people who won’t buy your book because the message is unpleasant (already too late for me, alas). Why, they argued, should we listen to writers any more than anyone else? What gives writers the right to set themselves up as politicians or economists? If you want to be remembered in a hundred years time, don’t write about the here and now, try to find something timeless to write about. This last, I might add, the demand that we think about our greatness for future generations, has always seemed to me the most egomaniacal, self-centred, self-absorbed, self-serving thing that a writer can say. It reminds me of Tony Blair’s justification for bombing Iraq back to the stone age – History will judge me.

But to each of these arguments there is a counter argument.

Many great works are political – Virgil was validating the Augustan dynasty; Dante was settling political scores; Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies are political tracts; The Romantic movement was political, not just Shelley and Byron and de Quincey, but Wordsworth and Coleridge too. Part of our problem in seeing these writers as political is that our definition of politics has changed. As regards the ‘no great art was ever political’ idea, what about Guernica, what about Goya, what about Neruda, what about Shostakovitch, Beethoven, Tolstoy. Lenin, for example, thought Tolstoy was the greatest writer of all, but devoted an entire essay to criticising his politics. We tend not to think about Tolstoy as political anymore because there are other more comforting ways of reading him, but political he was in many ways.

Of course there are plenty of examples of writers who should have kept their mouth shut. Yeats wrote marching songs for the Blueshirts, for example. But even he was on the right side once, before he lost the run of himself:

What need you being come to sense

But fumble in a greasy till

And add the ha’pence to the pence

And prayer to shivering prayer until

You have dried the marrow from the bone?

For men were born to pray and save,

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.


He was on the outside then. Later, Nobel Prize-winner, Senator, he got inside the tent. He made a choice and chose the wrong politics. This is what it’s about. You make a choice. You may be wrong, you may regret it, but you’re not exempt from the human condition. There is no ivory tower. What’s more, silence is effectively consent. By not making your objections heard you join the consensus. Writers owe a debt to the society they spring from, and it’s not a simple debt. For all of us, writers and non-writers, what we owe to our fellow citizens is always complex.

The demand that writers should first and foremost entertain is an understandable one. It’s been our function for a long time. But I agree with Jeanette Winterson, who said recently ‘Art isn''t a luxury product. It''s always about trying to change people''s lives.’ There’s another outsider, nailing her colours to the mast. It’s not about throwing figures on the screen, it’s about helping people to face up to the light of day. Art, as James Kelman said recently, is not a career.

And why should we listen to writers more than anyone else? You might as well ask why do we read books by writers and not by non-writers. We’ll listen to writers if and only if they make us listen.

So what can we writers do? I want to emphasise here that I’m not suggesting that writers should write only political books or poems or plays, though obviously I think that would be great. Let me be the first to say that I never feel in control of my books. They get into my head. I try to make them do what I want, say what I want to say, but they go their own way.

But we all have other lives. There’s a whole structure built around the writing life. Many of us have websites and blogs. We write for newspapers, even if only book reviews. We stand on platforms like this one. We get interviewed occasionally. When, occasionally, a writer attempts to rock the boat, as happened recently with Julian Gough, it can result in quite a lot of publicity. This is the apparatus of what other countries call ‘The Public Intellectual’. I’m using the term ‘intellectual’ here in the broadest sense. Antonio Gramsci said everyone is an intellectual but not everyone functions as an intellectual in society, and it’s in that sense I mean it. But writers, more than many of their fellow citizens, have access to the public. We get asked questions and those questions tend to box us into ever more precious observations about our own work. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to be asked about something else?

I make this appeal to my fellow-writers, not because of any special skills they have in politics or economics, not because they more than their fellow-citizens have a right or duty to engage in politics, but precisely because none of these apply. Writers should engage in politics exactly because they are citizens like everyone else. Quietism and ivory-towerism, the status-appeal of claiming to be an outsider or a dispassionate observer, or a mere ‘maker’ whose focus is always on the work and never on the subject matter – these have no place when it comes to justifying our lives among our fellow-citizens (and non-citizens).

If we, all of us, use some of the opportunities presented in our working lives to help to open up a political debate about that question I posed earlier – Who is this country for? – I think we will make a substantial contribution to the society from which we draw our inspiration. That’s a modest enough aspiration. I know how powerless writers really are – by the way, they’re about as powerless as anybody else in this hapless pluto-democracy of ours, no more and no less. But it’s just possible that writers, being skilled at writing, if nothing else, can persuade people to think critically about politics. And I don’t mean who’s up next, who’s in and who’s out. I mean that central question: Who is this country for? Is it for its citizens or for its billionaires? Is it for the economy or the people?

Of course becoming politically engaged will turn writers into outsiders again. And I take the risk that some of those writers will be on what I consider the wrong side.

I closed that essay I mentioned earlier with following words, and I’d like to close with them here:

‘The planet is burning; the capitalists have stolen the world, including our land, water and air; health, social services, education are battered and impoverished; unemployment is at an unprecedented level; oil-wars blight the lives of millions. Nevertheless, reasonableness, quietness, calmness, meditativeness, are continuously advanced as terms of affection by literary critics when the world calls for anger, savagery and satire… It will take more than reasonableness and quiet meditation to shake the structure. So let us begin at the first step, the simple process of naming our enemy. Firstly, a taxonomy of rapine, a genealogy of avarice.’


Originally delivered as a lecture to The Kate O''Brien Weekend, in Limerick, March 2010

And also published on Irish Left Review and Three Monkeys Online

The walls now

Taking probable climate change into account, the height of the new wall.