Friday, November 09, 2012

The Unrelenting Consensus

Alexis de Tocqueville: I wonder what he
would have made of Mattie McGrath?
Alexis de Tocqueville was born just after the French Revolution, and visited and wrote about America after its own upheaval, in his book 'Democracy in America'. There was considerable crossover between the thinking in the French and American Revolutions, and in the development of political thought.  The momentum of the French Revolution brought with it the chaos and carnage of The Terror, and ultimately of course Napolean re-established a de facto dictatorship for a time; in America, things were a little smoother, through universal franchise and liberté, égalité and fraternité were fine so long as you weren't a slave, or Native American. Today, it could plausibly be argued that France has reasserted a kind of acceptable socialism, notwithstanding the elitism of its administration, while America's development has led to a position where many commentators lamented the lack of difference in the platforms of the two candidates in this week's presidential election.  Countries, then, take different paths, though all democracies can see something of the philosophes in their constitutions.

De Tocqueville has an astute student of America's nascent democracy.  In his book, there were two concepts that should concern us today in Ireland. The first was the importance of civil society structures.  I've mentioned this in a few different blog entries (like this one), and Bob Putnam's book Bowling Alone deals with it in an American context - even Bertie Ahern claimed to have read it.  Indeed, dear readers, it may pain you to know that in a later edition of the book he is even quoted in the blurb (on page 3).  de Tocqueville's point was essentially that democracy required different components to succeed, arguably the most important of which were civil society structures.  As one writer put it, "American civil society is a ferment of active associations that Tocqueville accurately emphasizes as the key factor providing stability and the ability to function successfully as a democracy." Essentially, non political organisations managed themselves and their concerns.  They provided an active bulwark against political aggression, and enabled a kind of symbiotic relationship between the people and the political classes, between people and power.  The absence of such structures, then, clearly militates against functioning democracy.

He also praised the spirit of religion, a thing separate from religion itself; in essence, this was a pre-Weberian statement about the protestant ethic; there was a base moral guidance.  Without that, democracy would have no compass, and the state would lose itself.

The second and more troublesome concept that de Tocqeville discussed was what he called the tyranny of the majority.  Democracy is a fine thing; but there will be people who are maginalised by it, for their beliefs, their ethnicity, or their views on all manner of things.  Democracies survive, and thrive, because majorities guide them.  Efforts are made to mitigate the plight of the marginalised, the poor, the weak.  Mitt Romney's 47%, perhaps.

But there are times when the majority is blind, when consensus takes hold of a group of people.  And the country is most at risk of that when the majority is large, and when civil society structures are weak.  there are two levels upon which we need to consider this - in the first instance, in Ireland, the government has a massive majority; the political opposition, such as it is, is small, and almost half of the opposition are broadly supportive of government policy.  Outside of the Dáil, civil society structures are non-existent.  The GAA has been decimated as an effective civil society structure by emigration, player mobility, and commercialisation; the Catholic Church - as a civil society structure rather than political actor - is similarly denuded.  What remains?  School boards?  Coder dojo?

The second level upon which we need to consider this is at the European Level.  Politically, there is an absence of opposition.  Occasionally the very brave Nigel Farrage pays a visit, then we all get upset about what a Brit is doing over here telling us what to do, notwithstanding the fact that he's a European, and invariably lobbying on European matters.  Our contempt says more about us, and our political maturity, than it says about him.  As for European civil society structures, we are woefully underdeveloped.  The logic of European Integration and absolute federalism could be that the former state apparatus of the member states fills this role, but that's a long way off.  And given where we are right now, there are a thousand possibilities concerning the future of Europe that are more plausible, and indeed most of them are less palatable.

Ireland is suffocating under the weight of insurmountable debt, the intransigence of a government that is too powerful, and yet - for all its power - beholden to European masters.  Yet through the pain, and the unemployment, and the suicides, and the depression, there remains an Unrelenting Consensus that what we are doing is in equal measure right and unavoidable.  There are no other options.  There is not even any consideration given to a process for exploring options.  The constitutional convention is a sop to an ill-informed reformist agenda, that will result in no change.  And here, now, we are presented with yet another fait accomplis in the form of the Children's Rights Referendum.  What are the reasons to vote no?  There are none, we are told, by our leaders and our public representatives.  Mattie McGrath was the lone hold-out  in the Dáil against the referendum, purely because he knew it would get him on television, and would appeal to the more traditionalist Catholics still voting for de Valera and McQuaid.  Only after the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday did anyone have the courage to stand up and say "this isn't right."

People need to make their voices heard.  I write my blog, and my tweets, and try and make people think a little differently, but I should be doing more.  We need rational, coherent opposition and thinking.  And we need it now.  We can't wait for opportunists to form an opposition bandwagon in the run up to the next election, in the hope of poaching a cheap reactionary seat and snag a Dáil pension.  We need to break the consensus, it's not healthy, and it's not helping. 

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