Long hours at work and political activity have kept me from writing for a long time. Earlier this week I tapped a link on my news feed and looked into the heart of darkness of a smug layer of our middle-aged, upper-middle-class demographic who don’t realise that their time has been and gone. The feeling of one boring, baseless, offensively stupid cliché after another being droned at me was overpowering, and I had to write because I felt that there was an important lesson to be gleaned from this article, which I could articulate fully only if I started writing. I think I was correct.
The article I’m responding to was written by Victoria White in the Irish Examiner on Tuesday. It’s her two cents on Greece. A lot of rubbish has been written about Greece but this got my back up in a special way. I hope that, by the end of this article, you’ll understand why. To give an indication, in the middle of her article White says something about “the 1960s, when many of the currently influential people among the left-wing had their political awakening”. This made me wince. The 1960s were half a century ago. People who “had their political awakening” in the 1960s are now pushing 75. Later, I’ll delve deeper into why this stuck with me.
White is married to Eamon Ryan, a fact that I mention to give you an idea of the circles she moves in. Ryan was a Green Party minister in the Fianna Fáil-led government that signed the bank guarantee, got us under the thumb of the EU, IMF and ECB, and cut the first few billion before it suffered a historic collapse in the 2011 election. Wielding a still-bloody knife over the steaming chopping-block of austerity, Ryan and his Green Party companions appeared to be completely unable to understand why they were now objects of hate and contempt.
I know White is married to Eamon Ryan because it said so on his election leaflet last year. Later that year her article on the water charges movement, “Anti-water campaigners protest too much: their real goal is power,” left a deep impression in the “infuriating stuff I read on the internet” department of my brain.
This more recent article was no better. Her argument was nothing new: that Syriza had to sign up to a new austerity package because to do anything else would have led to “chaos”. But the emotional engine-room of the article was a long gloat at the expense of Greek Prime Minister Tsipras, who for White serves as a (very unsuitable) proxy for every anti-capitalist. According to White, he has been “forced to admit” that the financial system “funds” society. The arguments are very shallow: White reminds us that leaving the euro would lead to X, Y and Z problems, which would lead to “poverty”. She then informs us that to dump capitalism you must dump democracy, because people will never vote for “poverty”.
She does not pause to explain these huge leaps – Grexit to poverty, capitalism equals democracy, poverty, then dictatorship – before helpfully clarifying that a dictatorship “might be benign, but probably wouldn’t be.” As if the automatic response of a reader to the assertion that ending capitalism means dictatorship would be “But it might be a benign dictatorship!”
This ridiculous three-card trick with capitalism, poverty and dictatorship, really a blur of concepts rather than an argument, is the second-biggest hole in the argument. The biggest is the fact that White absolutely does not entertain the possibility (in fact, the certainty) that the new bailout deal might actually cause more poverty than certain alternatives. She is damned by her own attempts to appear somewhat critical: “Certain measures” in the deal, she observes, “Seem counter-productive”. She even acknowledges that there is a “vindictiveness” to it, and finishes with a mild, agnostic “hope” that “the European powers don’t ram it home.”
White would prefer if the wrecking of Greek society and the violation of its democratic wishes were done without so much “vindictiveness”, and if the devastation was wrought, but not absolutely “rammed home”. These are her personal preferences, and she expresses them mildly, and she doesn’t much care if they are met or not. This reflects all the outstanding features of the article: her smugness and glibness in favouring a deal that will be absolutely devastating for the Greek economy and society (as have all the previous deals, without exception and without doubt); her lack of criticism of the “European Powers” that are (very undemocratically) pushing it through; and her light-minded, logically paper-thin dismissal of the idea that there is any alternative, when the search for an alternative is an urgent, life-or-death issue.
But don’t worry. Victoria White is “a left-winger”, who would “vote for stringent global and national regulation of the banking sector”, presumably in some imaginary scenario where that question was put before the public by a single, all-powerful global government in an A or B referendum. In some cosmic sense, you see, she is “left-wing”. But in the here and now, in the rough-and-tumble of real, down-to-earth politics, she is in favour of putting the boot into the Greeks. With left-wingers like this, who needs right-wingers?
But the most bizarre, flabby, droning section of the article is yet to come. It’s also the most revealing. Apparently, “most of vocal members of the populist left-wing, [sic] including Alexis Tsipras, are in the pay of the very capitalist system they despise.” Here’s a major claim: the left is actually funded by capitalism. How’s she going to justify this one?
Disappointingly, White goes off in a bizarre tangent about “left-wing broadcasters, academics, teachers, politicians, and journalists – including yours truly” who have “approached capitalism like a hole in the wall that endlessly dispenses cash.” What exactly is she talking about? What does she mean by “left-wing”? Who are these members of the intelligentsia who have failed? The only examples she gives are Olivia O’Leary, academic Karl Whelan and herself.
A confused picture emerges, that may be a glimpse of the world as she sees it. It seems that in her mind’s eye, there is a group of people called “left-wingers” that consists of everyone from Olivia O’Leary to Victoria White to Alexis Tsipras to Paul Murphy. All left-wingers are intelligentsia types, and “since the 1960s… the capitalist system has been generating a lot of cash to pay them.” She concludes, from this picture in her head, that this curious and varied tribe who live on a stipend kindly given by the system of private profit, a tribe called the “left-wingers”, have no integrity. They lack integrity because they criticise capitalism (Or perhaps because they don’t criticise it cleverly enough; on this point White is not clear).
You really have to sit back for a minute to decode these paragraphs, to try to relate the various elements to things that exist in real life and actual history. Sometimes you recognise real things, although they appear in reverse. For instance, White believes that the financial system “funds” Greece – in spite of the massive wealth that Greece has poured and continues to pour into European banks to pay off odious debt and interest.
But overall, the picture does not relate to everyday life, but rather to vague impressions of clichés based on lost things. I’ll give an example. Imagine someone who was among the 63% who voted for equal marriage in May, and is also among the 57% who boycotted the first water charges bill. Going by polling data, this is fairly likely to be a young woman from a working-class area, who is angry about austerity and inequality and who wants backward social and sexual norms to stop interfering with her life and those of her friends. That’s someone who’s left-wing. But White, in this article, views the world through a haze of cloudy notions based on caricatures of things that have passed. Her mental image of a “left-winger” is of someone in a well-paid state job who was in their teens and twenties back fifty years ago. It’s a tragedy that these out-of-touch impressions are trotted out as cutting-edge commentary.
The reference to the 1960s made me think about the impatience with the older generation that was part of the mood at that time. “Talkin’ ‘bout my Generation” and “The Times They are a-Changing” expressed this feeling that the old should shuffle off and stop droning in obsolete terms about things they didn’t get. I understood this feeling but I never really felt it myself – until recent years. I thought there was an edge of ageism and arrogance about it, and besides I knew plenty of people who were only young in the strictest biological sense, along with many who were old in age but fresh and dynamic in their character.
In recent years I have come to feel this impatience and frustration with the old, and to feel it with burning intensity – and since lectures about the 1960s generation are an example of one of those sickeningly tired and irrelevant clichés that afflict those who are old in their soul, I won’t say any more about that decade a half-century ago. Let’s say a little more about the present. The years of austerity have been a horrible time to be in your early twenties. The background noise to those years has been the droning of old establishment farts and their young imitators, whose pearls of wisdom and frames of reference have absolutely nothing to do with our lives, our conditions or the wider world as it presents itself to us. We’ve had to listen to the false prophets of the brave new “entrepreneurial” world: those who tell us we have to “invent our own job”, “sell ourselves” and “be flexible”; the university president on a six-figure salary who told young people in a graduation speech that there was “no such thing as a job for life anymore”.
It was not Victoria White’s banalities about Greece that made me want to write. It was the way she channelled this droning, gloating, smug background voice, this white noise of the long recession. Abstract claims of being “left-wing” aside, agnostic desires to “reorder the global economy” aside, White has expressed the distilled essence of this voice.