There is now a newly empowered, self-appointed populism, a protectorate of the people, which in fact is the greatest threat to our democracy in decades, writes Gerard Howlin.
LAST Saturday in Dublin’s Smithfield, aptly outside the Children’s Court, there was a reprise of something that felt like a Trump rally. The ostensible cause was justice for a 15-year-old minor convicted of the false imprisonment of former Tánaiste Joan Burton and her adviser.
This was described as an outrage by Socialist TD Paul Murphy. The outrage in question being the conviction of a 15-year-old; not false imprisonment. It is a defining moment for those who will accept the result only, “if I win”.
The mildness of our justice system is underlined by the fact that the youth, who is now aged 17, was given a conditional discharge, meaning he will not have a criminal record. Notwithstanding what the judge characterised as an “atrocious series of events” he tempered justice with mercy. I doubt if many of our 15-year-old selves could bear our indiscretions into adulthood. The issue, of course, is not the then 15-year-old, it is the politics. That protest last Saturday is a dress rehearsal for the coming trials of adults, including Murphy himself. Believing as I do, in the rule of law, and being what he despises most — a liberal — I share fully in the presumption of his innocence. The fork in the road, of course, is the rule of law.
Like Trump, what the far Left here stand for is a dictatorship of the articulate. Among the many words that are most abused are “democracy” and “community”. There is now a newly empowered, self-appointed populism, a protectorate of the people, which in fact is the greatest threat to our democracy in decades. The words so freely bandied, uprooted from all meaning, except that malleable purpose proposed by their authors, are spectacular in their cynicism. In opposition to liberalism, deeply authoritarian, mirroring mirages of left and right have emerged which see actual people as fodder for causes, but not the cause itself.
Enabling a 15-year-old to put their schooling and perhaps their future in jeopardy, is a breath-taking measure of contempt. Taking for yourself, the power of the magistrate to deprive another of their liberty, is only a short step from there. You see, the great issue is not our liberty. It is our compliance with precepts, decided on by a cadre who know best. The reason the most feral infighting in Irish politics is between those on the far-Left, is because they can never agree among themselves on who does know best.
In that context, the alliance of People Before Profit and Anti-Austerity Alliance is both a relatively new, but remarkable abeyance of decades-old sectarian conflict between the Socialist Workers Party underlying PBP and the Socialist Party underlying AAA.
This historic coalescence has magnified both, and put Sinn Féin under considerable pressure, on its left flank. The circumstances of the AAA’s Paul Murphy’s election as a TD in Dublin South West in October 2014 signposts the road travelled. The previous June he lost the European Parliament seat he was co-opted to in Joe Higgins stead thanks to — his now PBP ally— Bríd Smyth’s candidacy, which split the vote. It was a bitter contest. Paradoxically the profile gained positioned him for the ensuing by-election to replace former Fine Gael TD and newly-elected MEP Brian Hayes. Sinn Féin was heavily favoured to win the seat. Correctly accusing them of being soft on water charges and creeping towards the centre, Murphy upended them and won. It was a decisive moment. Just as Trump is unimaginable without the longer context of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968, whence he arrived via the Tea Party as a reality TV cartoon character, the leftward populist pull of politics here enjoyed a critical jolt with Murphy’s election.
Neither Murphy nor his colleagues in leadership positions in AAA-PBP are cartoons of anything. They are the real thing, it is just they are not the thing they purport to be. Whether he will enjoy the durability of his mentor Joe Higgins remains to be seen. But he typifies a small group of highly articulate, self-possessed and powerful politicians who single-mindedly have had more direct and indirect influence on the political conversation, than others far larger in number, have had in decades.
Increasingly, they are the scrabble set from which others pick their letters to make their words.
It is arguable there has never been an Irish republic. Powerful authoritarian corporatism, first from the Church, and latterly from corporations more powerful than countries, not to mention the partial antidote of the European Union, means we have ever only partially established a res publica, or real public place. If the deficit in the ideal is glaring, all the alternatives are far worse. A lack of effective accountability cannot be countered by those who, like Trump or AAA-PBP, openly despise the very mechanisms of accountability itself. For them, accountability is for others, on the terms they decide. As Joan Burton discovered, even the fundamental right of habeas corpus against illegal detention, counted for nothing. Those who surrounded her were judge and jury. It was mob rule, fuelled by demagoguery. The true text of every right is its application to people and causes you disagree with. It is a new fascism of the highly articulate and deeply disciplined, leading from behind, larger numbers who share neither in those qualities nor the true regard or confidence of those who so stridently address them.
It is not a new phenomenon, however. For those who choose their words so carefully for effect, and understand their currency, the association with the term ‘Jacobin’ after the group who established a revolutionary dictatorship under Robespierre is noteworthy. The spring issue of the American magazine of the same name is insight into the thinking of some, associated especially with PBP. As the reign of terror of the original Jacobins unfolded, Edmund Burke wrote that “they everywhere engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich”.
The term Jacobin is now an intellectual tattoo, an insider’s moniker, for a would-be elite. It is hardly surprising to learn how many most prominent among them do come from relatively elite backgrounds. It is in the self-indulgent throwing off of obligations that facilitates the trampling of rights. It is the inversion of words that allows meaning to become infinitely malleable. This, in our time, is a new liquid politics. There are no structures, so meaning gathers as puddles within cracks. The effect of demagoguery in all societies is to solidify a primitive core group. It is a frightening day in the school yard, revisiting your adult self. If you are not in the gang, you will not be safe.
Last Saturday in Smithfield there was a real sense of the globalisation of Trump. There was an autocracy of the articulate and an underclass of followers.
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