GERARD HOWLIN: Not to rain on the parade, but even revolutionaries have to pay their way

It is at the moment of reform that an enfeebled state is most vulnerable. 

Maybe the French Revolution was inevitable. However, what provoked it was not obdurate opposition to change, but the very attempt to reform. Too late, and too weak to enforce transformation, the flailing attempt exposed vulnerability in an apparatus that had long forfeited its moral authority. That apparatus, though grandiose from a distance, in reality was an empty husk ready to be cut down. ‘People power’ stormed the Bastille, and once unleashed it could not be contained. In a moment, all awe disappeared. Self-interest followed promptly. The rest is history.

There are recurring themes in the loss of power. Hubert Humphrey, who was vice-president of the US in the 1960s, said: “History teaches us that the great revolutions aren’t started by people who are utterly down and out, without hope and vision. They take place when people begin to live a little better — and when they see how much remains to be achieved.” The accumulated overflow from long-entrenched channels of change is now coming up through the storm-shores of our society. The empowerment of the people via education, the media, and especially social media, has undercut the once essential inter-cessionary powers of politicians. Our need to speak to them about the little essentials of our lives has declined in tandem with their capacity to speak authoritatively for us, or even to speak cogently at all.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny might usefully read King of France Louis XVI’s opening address to the States General in 1789. The king, still in his pomp, but, as events exposed, no longer in power, announced: “The debt of the state, already immense on my coming to the throne, has accumulated during my reign... The increase in the tax has been the unavoidable result and has been rendered more painful by their unequal distribution.” Resistant to paying what they had not before, vested interests coalesced to frustrate reform. Thereafter, they were first up into the tumbril, taken to the guillotine; their heads carried away in buckets. The brushing-aside, again yesterday, of the advice of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, that we should reign in our fiscal obesity, is eerily evocative. Too late for appeasement, but no courage for decisive action.

As our need for politicians diminishes, their capacity, not just their status, reduces further. The intimacy of mass media, long before the unfiltered intrusion of social media, stripped away their allure. Under the spotlight, little we discovered was what is seemed. Scandals, tribunals, and disbelief all undercut authority. Economic collapse was the end for a system that no-one believed in any longer, but which was finally found incapable of providing even bread and circus.

Intercession, once essential in our cultural framework, was transformed from a sought-after connection to a belittlement. The power of intercession has retreated in the face of ‘people power’. Mass marches are only a recent, but highly potent, sign. In fact, the politician, the bishop, and the newspaper are much-diminished sources of authority. More educated, and more enabled by technology, we are far less dependent on ‘establishment’ figures for information, status, or assurance. There has, for two generations, been a continuing levelling of our hierarchical society. Its life form is dead, though its structures, strangely inert, still remain.

On Monday, in this newspaper, Michael Clifford reviewed a new book, For God’s Sake: The Hidden Life of Irish Nuns, by Camillus Metcalfe. Metcalfe is a former nun, and she interviewed elderly women, who had entered religious life decades ago in a different world with different values. One of those women is quoted as saying: “After Vatican II, you were a lay person, so you lost that function of a mediator with God. You no longer had a special line to heaven.” Nearly all modern authority finds itself ruptured, deprived of its ‘special line’: it’s no longer required as a mediator.

But if old mediators are being swept away, incoherent in the new language of protest, alternative ‘mediators’ are already springing up. The nation is being replaced by the crowd as an authority. The crowd’s size is supplanting the ballot box as legitimate currency. The ballot box, of course, was given ample opportunity. In 2011, the Irish people executed the largest political turnover in the history of the State and the third-largest in any Western democracy since World War II. The buckets were filled with severed heads, but, remarkably, the headless body politic marched on to the same old drum. It was a lot of carnage in return for very little change.

Two weeks from today, on Wednesday, December 10, marches will be held across the country, against water charges. There will be speculation on the likely turnout, and argument about its significance. But that misses the point.

The writing is already on the wall. Ironically, having committed everything to stabilising an exhausted system, the battle is lost. First Fianna Fáil and the Greens, and now Fine Gael and Labour, have fed a ferocious beast, to the point that, one after the other, with nothing left to give, they have been consumed in turn. There were many good intentions, but it is now clear there was never an alternative, transformative vision.

A bizarre, but un-interrogated, fact is that beneath the debris of the structures of our society, the system, which the body politic has exhausted itself serving, remains largely intact and in sly good health. That’s the great joke of Irish Water. It not new, or different; it’s the same. The user-charge has had the unintended consequence of transparency in a system that is largely well-fed and feather-bedded.

No wonder so many trade unions want a system in which general taxation, not charges, pay for water. The ingredient cost of public services, like the content of sausages, should never be seen if consumption is to be palatable. December 10 may, or may not, mark a further diminishment of the ‘establishment’ so-called. But if the ultimate extent of that diminishment is yet unknown, the big picture is clear. The general election of 2011 was only a punctuation point in a much bigger, and still unfolding, story. At the next election, the guillotine will do its therapeutic work again. When every head falls off, a roar will rise up.

‘People power’, of course, is only another form of avoiding responsibility — or at least the responsibility to pay. In fact, everything has to be paid for. You can cut the head off as many times as you wish, but the modern state is maggot-like in its imitation of an indestructible organism. It is resilient, even to revolutionary change. Eventually, there are no heads left to cut off. Then comes the moment of ultimate terror, which is responsibility; the ultimately unavoidable responsibility to pay for a system that won’t go away.

Eventually, there are no heads left to cut off. Then comes the moment of ultimate terror... responsibility


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