Breakfast Roll Man, Public Space and Planet of Slums

Transcript of a paper given at Ireland Institute for Historical and Cultural Studies on 22 November 2007

Author: Helena Sheehan

Where are we after the election? Why are we where we are? Where do we want to be? How do we get there? These are the questions posed by the organisers to the speakers for this series of seminars.

Generally the discourse surrounding the election has been too myopic. It has been too narrowly focused on who won, who lost, numbers of seats, electoral strategies, voting pacts, etc.

It is important, of course, to deal with such matters. Many of us on the left, even members of the Labour Party, were opposed to the Labour Party pact with Fine Gael and would prefer to see Labour looking to unity of the left, that is, to seeking common ground with the Green Party, Sinn Fein and left independents. One sad story of the election was seeing the numbers of left independents decreased rather than increased.

However, we need to go wider and deeper, to examine the nature of our society, from the global structures of power into which our lives on this island are inserted to the psycho-social mind-sets, which shape not only voting patterns, but everyday lives.

We need to do well what David Mc Williams does not so well, the sort of thing that he is attempting with his references to ‘Breakfast Roll Man’, ‘Yummy Mummy’ and the ‘Decklanders’. I know that much of this discourse is facile and shallow, but it is on terrain that can be mapped more probingly, more deeply.

We can challenge both the typology and the analysis, but we do need to know the world of ‘My Space Susie’ and ‘Facebook Frank’ if we are ever to pitch to them the possibility of an alternative to their world. We need to break through to those walking through the world full of celebrity gossip, strutting their brands, wired to their i-pods, while oblivious of what is happening around them and why.

We need to penetrate mentalities, to interrogate the zeitgeist. We need to understand how people are living and thinking and being shaped by socio-economic forces that they scarcely understand themselves. We need to enter into a critical discourse on the changing nature of the social contract.

We need to look at politics more broadly than electoral events. When I first joined the Labour Party, I was constantly asked if I ever thought of going into politics. I was always astonished at the question. I always replied: ‘I am in politics’. I had no intention of standing for public office, but I was intensely in politics. I had already been actively involved on the left for some time. It was about meetings and marches and campaigns and seminars and books and so much more than elections. For me it was about the long march through all the institutions of society – not only the Oireachtas – but also universities, schools, trade unions, building sites, media – the whole lot.

We need to look at the problems effecting the outcome of elections within the context of the state of our society. We need to examine the clustering to the centre, with its implicit legitimation of the nature of the system and its inhibition of explicit systemic critique. We need to expose the anatomy of the system and its power to make the dominant ideology seem to be only common sense. We need to undermine the fatalism of the belief that there is no alternative.

In our long march through all the institutions of society, we need to challenge that hegemony. For those of us who have managed to get university positions – not always easily – we need to do so in how we teach university, how we pursue research, how we mount opposition to the rampant commodification of knowledge, how we engage in public debates – on radio, tv, newspapers, websites – as well as in how we participate in elections and analyse the results.

In elections and in many other activities, the left needs to come out fighting for something bigger than modest alternative policies. On health, for example, the left needs to articulate an alternative vision – not of how many more beds – but for health system based on the principle: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. The left needs to make case for public sector, to challenge the slanders against it that clear way for the asset stripping happening on a national and global scale. Privitising public resources might not be equitable or even efficient, but the masters of the universe want for themselves what we once held in common and so it happens. It seems only common sense.

We need to speak of socialism again. I was glad to see the resolution on rebranding the Labour Party defeated at the last conference. I was also delighted to see The Red Flag adopted as its anthem.

Obviously it has become difficult – not only here, but on global scale. Countries declaring themselves ‘socialist’ have fallen. Parties once declaring themselves socialist have trimmed their sails. They still win elections, but give way to the overwhelming orthodoxy of the world. They sometimes talk left, but walk right. When they do walk left, they meet with mounting pressure.

However, something different is happening in Latin America. We need to connect with such revisoning of possibilities. Universities are crucial in this. Once universities were centres of intellectual, ethical, political and cultural ferment, largely through the questioning generated by the left, they have gone compliant and complacent. They have become ever more precisely aligned to the imperatives of the global market. We need to tackle this. Socialism, once a possibility against which to hold unacceptable realities to account, seems to have disappeared. We need to revive this sense of possibility.

Capitalism is riding high. There seems to be no alternative to it. Yet the individualism at the core of it cannot generate ideas and values by which we can live. It makes it possible for many to consume beyond the wildest dreams of their ancestors, but it deranges the psyche, it strips public space, it erodes social solidarity.

It leaves many more outside its vast malls, its gated communities, its three star restaurants, its five star hotels. They live in massive squatter camps. Their children beg for food past its sell by date from supermarkets or die of malnutrition, if they are not electrocuted tripping over pirated electricity cables.

The celtic tiger stalks in a planet of slums. Capitalism begets the confusion and craziness endemic to our age. It undermines the very foundations of rationality and sanity and morality. The dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all, world created by the idea that each acting in self interest is to the greater good of all, does not generate a society in which we can live meaningfully with each other. Capitalism, as most people live and think in it, is routinely supplemented by ideologies and values contradicting it. These contradictions should be foregrounded and explored.

Still capitalism has prevailed, stronger than ever. It has proved to be a far more formidable force, a more resilient system, than many of us ever imagined when we set our faces against it. Moreover, the most vigourous forces rising against it are more from the right than from the left. Political Islam is harnessing much of the disaffection that was once turned toward the left.

It turns out that it is possible to fool a lot of the people a lot of the time. They live poor but vote rich. They think and act, not only against the world’s best interests, but even against their own. So do the millions calling for jihad against them. We need to convince them that there is another way.

There are signs of renewal. Growing numbers come out in anti-capitalist demonstrations. There is a political movement on the rise, of the young and not so young, a movement of one ‘no’ and many ‘yeses’. Socialism is still there as one of these ‘yeses’.

Growing numbers come out in anti-imperialist demonstrations. The masses who came out on 15 February 2003 in Dublin and throughout the world were not only saying no to war on Iraq, but protesting the whole way power was being exercised in the world, saying ‘No, not in our name’. We need to recapture the energy that was on our streets on February 15. Even among those who do not march, there is a critique of capitalism and desire for an alternative.

Intellectually and politically we need to make our presence felt in a way that we haven’t for a long time. Intellectually we have enormous resources. As an analysis of the nature and power of the system, as an integrating, illuminating world view, there is still nothing to match marxism.

As political force, the left is still there. There are still people believing, writing, teaching, organising, protesting, making the long march through all the institutions of society, even standing for elections and winning. Whatever about the USA, the people of Europe (including Ireland), Africa, Asia and Latin America, elect socialists, even if not enough of them.

We are not at high tide, but we are still there in the flow of it all. We need a mighty wave.

Helena Sheehan is a Professor in Dublin City University.