“Anger is the political sentiment par excellence. It brings out the qualities of the inadmissible, the intolerable. It is a refusal and a resistance that with one step goes beyond all that can be accomplished reasonably in order to open possible paths for a new negotiation of the reasonable but also paths of an uncompromising vigilance. Without anger, politics is accommodation and trade in influence; writing without anger traffics in the seductions of writing.”
Nancy, J-L, The Compearance[ref]
How should we describe the extraordinary consensus that existed in this country — a consensus that united us all around core concepts like ‘free markets’, ‘competition is the only way’, ‘private enterprise good, public enterprise bad’, ‘social partnership’, ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘greed is good’, ‘conspicuous consumption’? For a long time we lived inside a bubble. The walls of the bubble were invisible to us, they coloured everything we looked at but everything was that colour anyway so we thought it was colourless. It was, nonetheless, a bubble. What we hear these days, in the media, in conversations, in political speeches and union negotiations is the pop of the bubble bursting. We are faced with an absolute incongruence — between what we have been told and what we see.1 What this incongruence will tell us remains to be seen, but it makes us strange to ourselves, wakes us from our dream of shopping and eating and enables us to look back at our days in the bubble with at least the illusion of detachment.
Sometime during his seven-year incarceration at the hands of Italy’s fascists, the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci developed a theory of ideological hegemony. It is probable that the idea first occurred to Gramsci during his meditation on another Italian philosopher and political analyst, Niccolo Macchiavelli, for that acute political analyst had observed the self-defeating nature of oppression as a political weapon. What Gramsci argued was that in modern democracies the powerful do not maintain their power — their hegemony — by coercion alone. In classical Marxist thought the ruling classes have at their disposal the police and the army, the prison system and the courts, the market and the all-important threat of destitution. All of these weapons are experienced as coercive by the poor. None of it belongs to them, and all of it, including the law, favours the rights of property and power.
However, it was clear to Gramsci that something else was needed to explain the fact the people voted for, or gave tacit consent to, a system that favoured a very small minority at their expense, actually voted to give power to the people who coerced them. The answer was ‘ideological hegemony’.2
In Gramsci’s formulation, a vast number of actors within a state contribute to the exclusion of hostile ideas. Thus, in a liberal capitalist democracy groups such as the churches, charities, political parties, special interest groups, schools, environmental activists, trades union, etc., all contribute to an illusion of political debate. It is an illusion because all of these groups, though they would like to tinker with the details, are in agreement on the fundamentals. Gramsci called this the ‘common sense’ position3. Genuinely radical voices are treated with contempt, and characterised as foolish and ‘ideological’ from the ‘common sense’ point of view, because the ideology of the majority is transparent to those who live within its confines — the bubble of my opening paragraph. Slavoj Zizek puts it succinctly:
“[I]n a given society, certain features, attitudes and norms of life are no longer perceived as ideologically marked, they appear as ‘neutral’, as the non-ideological common-sense form of life; ideology is the explicitly posited… position which stands out from/against this background.&rdquo:4
For example, it is a given in Western Europe (a) that what we have is democracy (b) that our ‘democracy’ is the best form of democracy that can be achieved (c) that democracy and capitalism are inseparable (d) that western-style capitalist democracy is the form of government towards which all other systems are evolving. These propositions represent the ‘common sense’ view for most people. Nevertheless, in our ‘democracy’, electoral victory usually goes to the wealthiest; once a party has been elected it never consults its electorate for another four or five years; subsidiary democracy (i.e. elections and votes within parliaments) is considered to be adequate to reflect the will of the people; capitalism regards democracy as the perfect ground for its exploitative activities, and ‘democracy’ has guaranteed capitalism 5 and awarded it a free reign by providing what is known as ‘political stability’. We should really coin some new phrase to describe it, something unwieldy like Competitive Plutocratic Subsidiary Democracy! To point to any of this is to question the god — and to be immediately labelled ‘ideological’, which in most cases is roughly equivalent to ‘crank’.
So where has western democracy (and ideological hegemony) taken us in recent years? It has taken us to war with Islam, to the torture palaces of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, to ‘greed is good’, to Global Warming, to the wars of Africa, to The New American Century, to peak oil, to the credit crunch and the global depression, to the reduction of Gaza, to financial corruption on a grand scale, to mass unemployment, to blood diamonds, to the super-rich and hyper-poor, the jobbing politician and the cartel. In the meantime it has given us as consolation professional football, the celebrity spectacle, wall-to-wall television, talk shows, reality TV. The culture of complaint has drowned the culture of dissent. Television has drowned politics. Listening and looking have drowned hearing and seeing. To see any of this as an aberration of capitalism that ought to be corrected in some way is to miss the point: this is capitalism. What you see is what you get.
Writing in the Guardian in response to the recent insurrection in Greece, Costas Douzinas said of politics in the western democracies:
Contemporary politics aims at marginal (re)distributions of benefits, rewards and positions without challenging the established order. In this sense, politics resembles the marketplace or a town hall debate where rational consensus about public goods can be reached. Conflict has been pronounced finished, passé, impossible. The convergence of political parties in the centre ground exemplifies this “conflict-free” approach. But conflict does not disappear. Neo-liberal capitalism increases inequality and fuels conflict. When social conflict cannot be expressed politically, it becomes criminality and xenophobia, terrorism and intolerance. Or a reactive violence, the emotional response of those invisible to the political system.6
So where do writers stand in all of this?
What our private views are is of no consequence. Maintaining in private a hostile attitude to power is the prerogative of the servant and the prisoner — ‘We two alone will sing like birds in the cage.’7 What is important is what we write because, as the legal maxim says, qui tacet consentire videtur — he who keeps silent is seen as giving consent.
Two other courses are open to us: we can simply point to the ‘commonsense’, identifying and naming the ideological hegemony that has brought us to this pass, a useful function of art in itself, one of its best works, although tainted by the fallacy of objectivity; or we can take sides in the hope of influencing the outcome and thus become part of the debate. This essay advocates the latter.
The traditional stance of the writer in the twentieth century has been oppositional — even in Ireland. That opposition has been by turns republican, nationalist, fascist, and socialist but, one way or another, it has always been on the side of the counter-hegemony. In the interwar years, for example, Frank O’Connor, Sean O Faolàin, Peader O’Donnell and Liam O’Flaherty harried the confessional Catholic and right-wing consensus, the latter two from very public left-wing positions. Even an allegedly ‘pastoral’ poet like Patrick Kavanagh could kick against the pricks in poems like ‘To Hell With Common Sense’ or ‘In Memory of Brother Michael’:
Culture is always something that was
Something pedants can measure
Skull of bard, thigh of chief
Depth of dried up river
Shall we be thus forever?
Shall we be thus forever?
But at no time in the recent past have writers been so integrated into the fabric of power and at the same time strikingly powerless as they are now.
Writers, integrated into the fabric of power, I hear you ask, how can that be?
The Arts Council, established in 1951 with Sean O Faolàin as its chairman, was originally conceived as a conduit for state funding for the arts, including grants and bursaries to writers and artists; Aosdàna, a national body for writers and artists was established in 1981, its only useful function to disburse a cnuas or bursary to deserving members; two further organisations manage grants for translators of Irish literature and grants for Irish artists and writers to travel abroad. Most — probably all — of the festivals that take place around the country on a regular basis are part-funded by these government bodies; most travel by Irish writers benefits in some way from these organisations; many writers who would otherwise be in straitened circumstances draw an honourable pension from Aosdàna. It is, in fact, difficult if not impossible to be a writer in Ireland and not to become the beneficiary of government largesse in some form. And in addition to government funding, most arts organisations draw the balance of their sponsorship from local, national or international business, and, of course, government anyway sees its interests as virtually identical to those of commerce. I do not wish to suggest that a withdrawal of government funding is a good idea — quite the contrary, it is the business of government, among other things, to support the artistic life of the community — rather I am suggesting that it has never been easier for writers to abandon their traditional oppositional stance and cosy up to the political establishment. Of course the political establishment for the most part don’t give a damn about them so long as they’re not rocking the boat — the day when an Irishman might agonise about whether a play of his ‘sent out certain men the English shot’8 is long gone.