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.
So instead, I’d like to talk this afternoon about caves, circus-girls, big Ps and small Ps and the choice thereof, economists and plonkers, and ultimately – writers.
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?