Saturday 21 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Look on your works, ye Mighty, and despair'

A smug elite is paying the price of dismissing justified criticism as 'populist' protest, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

The neighbours are having an almighty row. Screaming, slamming doors and punching walls. One side says the other is stone-cold mad. The other threatens to burn the house down if they don't get their way.

On one level, the Brexit row is great fun to watch from a distance. There's a history between the Brits and the Paddies, of course. The Brits always regarded us as somehow not quite good enough for the neighbourhood. So, it's amusing to watch them making a holy show of themselves.

Trouble is, we live in the semi-detached next door. If they burn their house down, we're in big, big trouble.

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Across the Atlantic, there's a lying racist in charge. A self-confessed sexually abusive man with an orange face and questionable hair.

Again, on one level Trump is a hoot. Yet, we know that any day he might make a stupid, malicious decision that scrambles countless lives - maybe even ours.

And every professor of politics and every media pundit knows what caused all this - populism. They explain how unsophisticated British people voted to leave the EU. And similarly misguided Americans put a spiteful, childish man in the White House.

It's a bit more complicated than that.

Back in the 1980s (oh, I remember it well) "populism" meant taking the side of the people against the bankers, the millionaires and the cartels. Today, "populist" is an insult thrown at politicians who supposedly pander to the "unaffordable" demands of the people.

We, like most western democracies, have been governed by right-wing parties. They suck up to the bankers, the billionaires, the bondholders and the comfortable classes.

Such parties claim to make "tough decisions", to maintain stability.

They denounce the "populists" who "give in" to the ignorant demands of the masses. These self-proclaimed "sensible" parties thrived in the USA, in Europe, in the UK and Ireland.

The "sensible" political establishment is largely supported by a "responsible" media and an academic world that endorses all this as unquestionably sensible.

This self-belief didn't waver, even as they presided over an insanely greedy financial conglomerate that eventually imploded. Their self-belief survived the shredding of various national economies and the recession that followed.

These "sensible" people then imposed crushing austerity on the rest of us. All the while, anyone who suggested we might make the greedy ones pay for the crisis they created was treated as irresponsible, and not at all sensible.

It seems we're too thick to understand how these things work.

The pain and the indignities heaped on us have been endless. We watched loved ones linger on hospital trolleys, while countless young emigrated. Our children were schooled in "temporary" huts that remained in place for a generation.

Even couples earning good wages can't afford a house, rents are beyond parody. Scummy landlords charge huge money for "apartments" that consist of a bed crammed into a small kitchen.

Politicians remain resolutely opposed to policies that have in the past proven to relieve a housing crisis. They watch the homeless figures rise while they repeatedly tinker with ideologically fashionable "solutions" that don't work - but which enrich the landlords, the vultures and their agents.

All around, chancers prosper. We see the "We're back, baby" crowd thrive, as do their favourite luxury shops, while the cocaine peddlers are working double shifts in the financial services.

Those who inflated the property bubble - the bankers, the developers, the gamblers - shrugged off their debts. But those with mortgages were mercilessly pursued, while bankers thought up new ways to rip them off.

People contributing little or nothing to society become vastly wealthy. People who devote their lives to useful work barely get by. Others live modest lives, yet flounder in debt.

Our moral guardians, the bishops, abandoned our children to predators. Our civil guardians invented two million breath tests and battered any of their number who dared speak out.

All of this was tolerated and defended as long as possible by politicians and media, shoulder to shoulder. In the UK and the USA, similar establishment solidarity defended similar "sensible" outcomes.

Meanwhile, the media abounded with pundits demanding further cuts in the social protection we had already paid for. One of them - Ivan Yates - demanded that the "sacred cow" of free travel for pensioners be "culled". Yates, since the age of 43, has enjoyed a political pension greater than most hardworking people's salaries.

Leo Varadkar campaigned against welfare recipients, although his officials knew - and later said - that the fraud he complained of is minuscule.

Both Yates and Varadkar merely reflect the venom expressed by many in the comfortable classes.

The sheer unfairness of all this generated vast resentments. These are unacknowledged at a political level, and treated by the media as greedy and unjustified "populist" demands.

When given a chance, a huge element among US voters voted for the billionaire "outsider". Some may be racist, conservative or thick. Many are just pissed off. They don't care that Trump lies, that he spits in the face of the elite - that's his attraction. In the UK, a similar element delighted in giving the establishment a poke in the eye, voting for Brexit.

The fact that they followed the advice of unsavoury characters, millionaires and conmen, was unsurprising. They didn't have a Mandela or a Martin Luther King to follow, they were offered Cameron or Clinton, cynical establishment figures.

And we in Ireland have developed a significant portion of the population that is justifiably pissed off with our elites.

Politics is presented as a choice between FG or FF. We're offered different degrees of the same thing. Choice without change.

Anyone who refuses to help FG or FF make up the numbers is denounced as "sitting on their hands", and is not a serious politician.

Therefore, it's considered normal that any development to the left of the terminally compromised Labour Party is treated as bizarre, to be ridiculed or exposed.

This is despite the fact that some of the left-wing TDs are miles ahead, in purely parliamentary terms, of the FG/FF crowd.

We saw in 2015 how the media treats political developments it approves of. Some high-profile people - Lucinda Creighton, Eddie Hobbs, with their backroom experts - put together Renua, a new "sensible" right-wing party. As though there aren't enough.

Renua was a puff of wind, a "party" that went into the 2016 election with three TDs and came out with none. Yet, because it fitted the "sensible" template, The Irish Times chronicled its every move. On the day it launched, the leaders were warmly received on The Late Late Show.

A couple of weeks ago, The Sunday Business Post ran a story on how Renua courted Peter Casey. Hugh O'Connell dug up emails from the period leading to the launch. They show Renua discussing whether to put Casey on to The Late Late, or put him on "a few weeks later", to "build momentum".

Why not? It's their media, after all - and that's how increasing numbers see it.

In the scramble of the "sensible" people to get rich, and to venerate those who do, we have inculcated justified resentment in a growing segment of the population. The right chancer and the right issue and, well...

It's fun watching what the Brits have done to themselves, but let's not laugh too hard.

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