The Citizen: Issue 3
Author: Aidan Lloyd, Niall Crowley, and Mary Murphy
The name Is Féidir Linn (or ‘yes we can’) was influenced by the Obama electoral campaign which captured and infused a sense of optimism and hope across the world that people could come together to create change. In late 2008, a group of people involved in civil society initiatives for community development, equality, human rights, and social inclusion in Ireland organised into a loose network. We had the ambitious goals of trying to imagine an alternative Ireland and contributing to the emergence of a social movement to advance it. Is Féidir Linn wants to be part of a process that creates a better and more equal Ireland.
The response to the current economic crisis involves mortgaging our social and economic future to bail out the banks. This has created levels of unemployment that are unprecedented, while social services that are key to our well being are being starved of resources and dismantled. The standard of living of the poorest in society is being compromised; mortgage defaults are an increasing source of hardship; and the environment is being destroyed through carbon-intense production. Yet two years into the crisis, this model is defended by an imposed consensus that ‘there is no alternative.’
We believe that, in the words of Susan George, ‘there are a thousand alternatives.’ Core to the analysis of Is Féidir Linn is the importance of articulating these alternatives. We are increasingly aware that the public articulation of a narrative of alternatives is blocked by a media that has bought into the myth that there is no alternative and a polity that increasingly seeks to silence dissent.
Many people expected that the crisis would present opportunities to question the Irish model of neo-liberalism (this is the model of society as economy) and to explore alternatives. There was the hope that the economy could be put back in its place if democratic choice could be exercised through public participation and debate. Democracy is the right to choose and the right to have alternatives to choose between. In this regard, a significant democratic deficit is now apparent.
In a time when fear is capturing the public imagination, ideas are needed in place of that fear.1 The poverty we should fear is not only material destitution but also poverty of the imagination. Anne Marie Smith argues that political struggle depends in part ‘on the ability to imagine alternative worlds.’ It is crucial therefore to imagine and articulate these alternatives. Arguably, the use of public discourse to inspire people to believe that they could imagine and hope was the greatest weapon in the Obama campaign arsenal. What gives imagination this subversive quality? What is it about Ireland’s public discourse that so few imaginative choices about alternatives are either articulated or heard?
In the ‘Ireland after Nama’ blog, Declan Curran draws our attention to Bourdieu’s concept of social silence. This is where elite groups control society not just by controlling the physical means of production but also by influencing the cultural discourse. Such social silences often come through the framing of our education system and the unbalanced ownership of our media. They also come about through social conformity, shared ideology and assumptions, and even our own complicit silence. The personal and social pressure to conform can be likened to the fable of the emperor’s new clothes. Pressure from the elite filters throughout society in a manner that is felt by all who try to articulate dissent: much of what we say is ignored or disregarded; and much is deemed impolite, wrong, boring, or misguided. When people enter this arena from an already unequal starting point, it is even harder to articulate the possibility of alternatives. The experience of women is telling in this regard.
The unequal participation by women in recent Irish economic debate provides a telling example of these challenges. Thirteen books about the crisis were written and published in 2009. The authors of the books were from all walks of life: academics, journalists, politicians, and international bankers. Only two of these books were co-authored by women (Kathy Sheridan and Martina Devlin). Penguin Books hosted a series of debates by four of the authors – it began with a packed audience in the National Concert Hall and was titled ‘Four Angry Men.’ Where were the angry women?
The substantive content of these books, by and large, documents the male villains of the crisis – the bankers, the developers, the builders, and the politicians. The total invisibility of women in the story of economic crisis is striking. With one or two exceptions, women are mainly present only as wives, girlfriends, and daughters of these men. The absence of women in this picture does not appear problematic to any of the authors – there is a failure to observe or analyse the patriarchal hue of the picture they paint.
Public comment about economic policy is highly gendered. For example, only fourteen per cent (or seven out of forty-six) of the signatories to the NAMA letter in the Irish Times (29 August 2009) were women. This situation also pertains in the wider field of economic commentary. An interesting trend in the Irish crisis has been the rise in the use of blogging as a forum for political debate about economics. A review of recent input (from 13 February to 13 March 2010) to two Irish blogs shows similarly disturbing trends. The irisheconomy.ie blog has had no recent inputs from women, and women comprise only ten per cent (three out of thirty-two) of contributors. There are glass ceilings or hidden barriers for women attempting to enter this blog – it only accepts entries from established professional economists or those in economic departments of third level institutions. A review of inputs to the more inclusive blog progressiveeconomy.ie again shows no female contributions over the last month. This blog is moderated by a woman, and she has actively sought women contributors: however, only five non-staff women have ever contributed to this blog.
It does not appear to matter whether the economic debate is neo-liberal, mainstream, or progressive: Irish women are not blogging about economics. Adrian Bua argues that this is not unusual and that the world of blogging appears to be another patriarchal failure of discourse and to mirror the democratic deficits in the real world.2 Women are more likely to ‘lurk,’ watch, and observe – men are more likely to ‘flood’ or make a disproportionate number of entries. The virtual world mirrors the gendered patterns of political participation and discourse in the real world. Bua notes that the dominant online style of discourse is ‘assertive, authoritative, adversarial, sarcastic, and self-promoting,’ whereas the more ‘subservient’ female style is ‘shorter, personally orientated, questioning, tentative, apologetic and supportive.’ No wonder, then, women self-exit mixed blogs and set up women-only blog spaces.
The taking of individual risks to articulate dissent can be part of the solution to social silences. We need to support each other to use our voices. However, there are structural obstacles and barriers to dismantling social silences. The experience of women makes it clear that participation in public discourse is more challenging and more complex than we might assume it to be. The absence of women’s voices serves to illustrate the challenges in articulating alternatives from the perspective of those groups experiencing poverty and inequality. In his new book The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, David Harvey highlights how:
… the last thirty years, however, [have] seen the emergence of systems of governance that seem immune to legitimacy problems and unconcerned even with the creation of consent. The mix of authoritarianism, monetary corruption of representative democracy, surveillance, policing and militarisation (particularly through the war on terror), media control and spin suggests a world in which the control of discontent through disinformation, fragmentation of oppositions and the shaping of oppositional cultures through the promotion of NGOs tends to prevail with plenty of coercive force to back it up if necessary.
The relationship between the Irish state and civil society today has been described by Mary Murphy and Peadar Kirby as being characterised by control, an ever more disciplinary funding regime, a state-initiated drive for an NGO service-provision model, and blinkered and obfuscating ideology. Niall Crowley (in Village Magazine) has drawn attention to how the state has marginalised dissent. He argues that dissent plays key roles in a democracy: it provides the seeds for innovation and new ways of societal development; and it serves to challenge abuse and injustice. Yet, he notes, dissent is marginalised and treated with suspicion by the Irish state.
Inequalities of wealth, power, and status create a context in which dissent and the search for an alternative model of societal development are both necessary and urgent. However, it is, in effect, being silenced through an organised and aggressive agenda of control pursued by the state. The state has sought to control ideas and thinking, funding, and the policy dialogue between the statutory and community sectors. Some of this control was engineered and implemented through the mechanisms developed for social partnership at national and local level. Over time, these mechanisms became the dominant means of policy dialogue between community organisations and the state. However, they were developed to be non-adversarial but controlled environments – people have used images of ‘smothering embraces’, ‘asphyxiating chokes,’ and ‘institutional entrapment’ to describe the physical manifestation of this relationship with state elites.
The economic recession itself is now being used to provide cover for marginalising dissent following the demise of social partnership. Significant cuts have been made to the funding of community organisations. This has resulted in downsizing and forced closure for these organisations, while their independence has been diminished under new funding programmes. These community organisations play a key role in articulating and advocating the interests of groups experiencing inequality and disadvantage, and their capacity to articulate dissent has now been damaged.
A battle of ideas must be engaged in by all sectors of society if we are to advance alternatives for a better and more equal Ireland. We need to roll back this marginalisation of dissent and to challenge state control of our thinking. New forms of organisation within civil society, based on a stronger solidarity within sectors and cross-sectoral cooperation and coordination, will be vital in securing this better and more equal Ireland. It is in this space that Is Féidir Linn is located, with our emphasis on the need to develop a social movement to bring forward alternatives for Ireland.
David Harvey refers to the importance of being able to produce ‘mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs.’ Is Féidir Linn launched its vision for an alternative Ireland in June 2009. We hosted a public event to stimulate discussion and understanding of the need for and content of this alternative. Our alternative was based on the values of inclusion, equality, and sustainability. It emphasised the need to stimulate employment in the social economy and to establish low-carbon systems of production; sought to move towards income equality by linking maximum and minimum income; emphasised the need for a taxation system adequate to funding universal access to high-quality publicly funded health, education, and care services; and promoted more participatory forms of democracy, a new impetus to value the diversity of people and groups in society, and the elimination of discrimination.
We are not alone in trying to promote a civil society-led initiative to realise such an alternative. The Renewing the Republic series in the Irish Times opened up some public discourse on this subject. Crucially, many contributors argued that, despite the good intention of many politicians, political reform will not come from within the status quo or the political system. Rather, it will only come if driven from below and from outside the political system. This type of conclusion draws on not only contemporary understanding of how social transformation occurs but also the rich history of the vital contribution of civil society (including the cultural, language, arts, labour, and women’s movements) to founding the Irish Republic. A recent publication of the Carnegie UK Trust came to similar conclusions to Geoff Mulgan’s article in the Renewing the Republic series, drawing attention to the role civil society can play in charting a new sustainable future and pointing to the need to change democratic rules of engagement in order to open up space for more voice and participation for civil society, empowering it to take a central role in Ireland’s recovery.3
This conclusion has also been recognised within the political system: Fine Gael has proposed a Constitution Day, and the Labour Party has proposed to convene a Citizens’ Assembly to redraft the now outdated 1937 Irish Constitution. The government has also been active on this front, while the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution is considering proposals for electoral reform and the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence, and Women’s Rights has adopted a report proposing gender candidate quotas in elections. These proposals from the political system are welcome, but it is not necessarily cynical to observe, as Frances Fox Piven has shown us, that most significant change in power and social relations comes from the activation of power from below.
The final editorial in the Irish Times (3 April 2010) for the Renewing the Republic series concluded that:
If political culture is to be revolutionised, it can only happen from below. Renewal will not be driven from above – it can only come on a wave of civic engagement with the task of constructing a democracy, as if from scratch.
Civic assemblies, plebiscites, forums, and other democratic mechanisms require action from the state in the form of political institutions that enable participation. However, it is now time for civil society to do it for itself. We need to be clearer about what we mean by civil society-led participation and the role participation can play in understanding or contributing to an alternative polity, society, and economy. In Ireland, a thin conception of participation has prevailed, viewing it in relatively liberal individualistic and exclusionary terms. Public discourse has centred on a narrow type of active citizenship that promotes participation as partnership, customer consultation, advocacy of individual rights, and local volunteering.
These limited forms of participation contribute little to broadening our understanding of social or economic political choices. The lesson civil society has learned is to be wary of the trade-offs that accompany the acceptance of forms of relationship with the state that have limited influence on policy at the expense of a more dynamic participatory democracy. It is only through such a participatory model of democracy that civil society will have the opportunity for a more imaginative discourse, capable of articulating alternative policy choices for a more socially responsive, equal, and sustainable economy.
A more radical definition of participation is thus required – one that includes but goes beyond the language of civic forums or citizens’ assemblies, which imply state-led processes. What is needed, rather, are civil society-led processes that stress the capacity of collective responses to social and economic issues and the importance of enabling the voice of those experiencing inequality and disadvantage to participate in shaping Ireland’s future developmental direction.
There are many examples in Irish history and internationally of how civil society-initiated public participation can open up public discourse, public space, the public sphere, and, ultimately, the public imagination to the possibility of alternatives. Key to a more radical approach is tackling inequality in participation and addressing the significant democratic deficits in formal and informal participation. This can only be done from the ground up, involving grass roots community organisations.
The last decade was characterised by state-led polices and strategies that curtailed the participative capacity of citizens; undermined and attacked the conditions for a vibrant civil society and increased state control over it; maximised the role of the market in organising society; and consolidated power from above at the expense of power from below. This decade must be characterised by civil society-led responses that enable participation and empowerment and that create the space to imagine and articulate alternatives.
In The Enigma of Capital, Harvey writes:
A double blockage exists: the lack of an alternative vision prevents the formation of an oppositional movement, while the absence of such a movement precludes the articulation of an alternative.
Is Féidir Linn is working with others to build momentum, solidarity, and alliances among those interested in and committed to the vision and goals of achieving an inclusive, equal, and sustainable Ireland. This year, we have been working with like-minded groups and individuals to move forward some mechanism to enable a coming together of people who are determined that this crisis should be a line in the sand between the old unequal Ireland and a new progressive Ireland. We do not believe this will happen quickly or easily – it will not happen by simply replacing the present government, by starting a new progressive political party, or by establishing a new civil society organisation. Rather, we believe civil society has to take its own initiative; imagine and articulate a different future; grow and nurture new values of equality, inclusion, and sustainability; and agree new forms of politics.
Harvey informs and inspires these ambitions, and it is worth quoting him at length:
Feasible future possibilities arise out of the existing state of relations between the different moments. Strategic political interventions within and across the spheres can gradually move the social order onto a different developmental path. This is what wise leaders and forward looking institutions do all the time in local situations, so there is no reason to think there is anything particularly fantastic or utopian about acting in this way. The left has to look to build alliances between and across those working in the distinctive spheres. An anti-capitalist movement has to be far broader than groups mobilising around social relations or over questions of daily life in themselves. Traditional hostilities between, for example, those with technical, scientific and administrative expertise and those animating social movements on the ground have to be addressed and overcome. We now have to hand, in the example of the climate change movement, a significant example of how such alliances can begin to work.
There is now a broad practical and academic interest in the idea of social movements or civil society generating power from below and bringing forward alternative narratives in response to the crisis. A broad range of actors can be identified, ranging from grass roots participatory action groups to more structured social movements. These include the Feminist Open Forum, The Big Push, the Moving Forward discussion series, the Irish Anti-War Movement, Seomra Spraoi’s Asking Questions forums, ICTU’s Get Up Stand Up campaign, The Ireland Institute, TASC and Progressive Economy, the Equality & Rights Alliance, the Join the Dots groups in Dublin’s canal communities, and countless others.4 While all want a better world, there is less agreement, tactically and policywise, on how it can be achieved.
The dialogue that Is Féidir Linn has initiated with trade unions, environmental organisations, progressive think tanks, and community organisations has identified barriers to building an impetus for change. There are obstacles to putting an alternative analysis into the public domain. It has been difficult to achieve effective connections between organisations and between different sectors that share a concern about the need to bring forward an alternative Ireland, and it has not been easy to link national organisation to people on the ground at local level. This has meant that new ideas have been slow to take hold.
What is encouraging is the interest we have encountered in communicating an alternative and in finding a shared counternarrative to the dominant analysis of what has happened in Ireland and what needs to be done. What offers hope for the future is the shared commitment we have seen to supporting a wider mobilisation of civil society for an alternative and new Ireland to emerge from this recession.
Is Féidir Linn is now working with other actors to develop a space where everyone committed to a more equal, inclusive, and sustainable Ireland can come together to develop a framework that unites our disparate work in national and local communities. We need a framework that makes our combined energies more than the sum of their individual parts. Is Féidir Linn is committed to working with others to convene a people’s gathering this autumn. We could call this space a civic forum, but we do not mean a state-led process. On the contrary, we mean a process that enables the reinvigoration of a civil society that is independent of the state. We mean ongoing organised and facilitated public space(s) for grassroots individuals and associations to demonstrate solidarity with each other and to organise and think independently of the state and political parties. And we mean establishing a creative and enabling space for generating, disseminating, and contesting ideas; for constructive debate about shaping our world; for enabling the voice of civil society; and for making an independent contribution to policy, planning, and national debate.
We are talking with a broad range of other civil society organisations about how to make this type of civic forum happen. Now is the time for a broad-ranging initiative of this nature. Now is the time for the full spectrum of civil society that seeks a more equal, inclusive, and sustainable Ireland to invest scarce human and creative resources in such an initiative. It will be effective only to the extent that it secures the participation of civil society organisations from all sectors in building up to the realisation of the civic forum and in giving it life after the event in the autumn.