Colm O'Doherty: Michael D. Higgins article in the Irish Times on Saturday sought to engage with the real issue facing Irish people – “what sort of society we wish to create”. He takes issue with the essentialism of the economic model position, and argues that its dominant ideas have infiltrated our thoughts as common sense when they make no sense at all.
If we search behind current political statements and policy debates, we are confronted with a culture of compliance and a misleading active citizenship discourse. Our broken economy has generated a financial crisis which is being played out in the media, but the continuing malfunctioning of our political system is not being discussed to the same degree. What is lacking are clear policy alternatives to the imposition of a market logic onto political processes.
There is no debate and discussion taking place in any forum on what alternative forms of social relations might be substituted for economic ones. A friend of mine, commenting on the political culture of compliance in this society, wondered if Ireland had in any way profited from the Enlightenment, as most people still believed in the divine right of a certain political party to reign. Within our culture of compliance, the government is pre-occupied with altering the behaviour of citizens rather than vice versa. The main development during the life of successive governments has been to instrumentalise citizens, reducing politics to the achievement of goals established not by people themselves, but by a small governing elite – speculators, builders, bankers – who believe they know best. Civil society has been mobilised in support of this political agenda. Successive governments have, under the guise of supporting its independent role, been intent on influencing and controlling it, and using community and voluntary organizations as deliverers of services. Over the past decade, the state has not only become more active in controlling its citizens, but it has also been asking more of them. To do this it has recourse to new governance strategies in which self-regulation of conduct becomes a cornerstone of social order. The best basis for social order is then realised through self-responsible individual citizens, who are competent free market actors, who compete, work, save and consume in pursuit of their own interests.
The services provided by community and voluntary groups are regarded as goods and are consumed by customers. Those who seek to uphold the rights of an entitled citizenship through purposeful collectivism are labelled unpatriotic. It is of the gravest concern that the illusory nature of economic growth, based on credit,house price inflation and commercial service expansion, is not disrupting the longstanding managerial politics based on a culture of compliance. The divide-and-rule policy stratagems of this and previous governments are underwritten by the iron law of the economic model, which is that markets and trade only function through the promotion of a spurious meritocracy. A cult of success which dresses up selfishness as socially desirable esteems those with “entrepreneurial skills”, and the “unproductive” are deemed to be without merit unless they adapt their behaviours to service the economic good and become self-actualizing citizens. What one can do in economic terms, and what one can offer, become more important than relational skills which contribute to the interpersonal economy and increase wellbeing.
Real active citizenship is urgently needed to challenge this culture of compliance supporting the political status quo. An active citizenship not just about learning the rules of the game and how to participate within existing models and structures, but encompassing active learning for political literacy and empowerment.
Colm O’Doherty is lecturer in the Dept of Applied Social Studies, IT Tralee. A qualified social worker with extensive practice experience, he has researched and published in the areas of social policy, child protection, domestic violence, community development, social work, family support and parenting. He is the author of A New Agenda for Family Support, Providing Services That Create Social Capital (2007) and co-editor of Community Development in Ireland: Theory, Policy and Practice (2012) and Learning on the Job: Parenting in Modern Ireland (2015). He holds a PhD from UCD.