Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Walking along the aptly-named River Dodder next to where I live I am given to speculation. I notice how, often, a dog’s physiognomy is similar to that of his owner. In making a choice of puppy, or breed, a putative owner seems to be unconsciously guided by an attraction to a dog, embodying characteristics of his own, or perhaps idealised ones. This makes the hound on the leash appear as an extension of the human holding him. The owner also drills his pet into conformity with how he wishes him to behave. Yet it seems that, over time, any dog imparts qualities of his own onto his owner too, thereby confounding the relationship. Ownership is thus reciprocal, involving self-love, an expression of ego, and mutual nurturing, potentially expanding a capacity for love on both sides. The bond is mutually-reinforcing: as the owner cares for him, so the dog protects and gives affection. It is a fascinating intimacy between species that have co-evolved since before the advent of agriculture. Our best, and worst, qualities are often revealed in human-canine relations.

Stories behave like dogs in some respects. They’ve been ‘man’s best friend’ since time immemorial, and been internalised as a collective unconscious beyond any individual’s life. Telling a tale is an expression of ego on the part of its creator, but stories also take on a life of their own. A wild nature attending any creation may refuse to obey the ostensible author’s command. Thus, Leo Tolstoy, as he wrote the eponymous novel, complained to his editor about the unpredictable conduct of Anna Karenina, who seemed unprepared to accept an allotted role, just as she rejects social conventions in the novel.

Once engendered, a great fable is unpredictable and beyond the control of its apparent creator, whose name is often forgotten in the retelling. Now Leopold Bloom’s life exceeds that of his creator James Joyce who may soon be forgotten on Bloomsday. In general literature nurtures, and expands a capacity for compassion, but fictions may also be destructive, especially where an ‘imagined community’ is concerned – as in nationalism – or in excessive veneration of religious tropes that breed fundamentalisms. The re-framing of narratives is essential in conflict resolution.

A cultural awakening often occurs before a precipitous decline into barbarity. The visionary artist intuits forthcoming ruptures, and is animated by a frenzied energy drawn from the zeitgeist. Nonetheless, no matter how compelling, his voice may only be heard in the wilderness of the avantgarde, or by posterity. A more intriguing spectre is that the artist engenders the scenes he depicts, and that stories are not mere prophecies, but work – in voodoo style – on the world he inhabits. This ‘magical’ view of literature, where the poet plays the role of a divine, might seem implausible, but it is apparent how life often imitates art, and that the sensibilities of groups of people are moulded by the stories they listen to. It is not only great artists that possesses these alchemical abilities, we all do to some extent, but any greatness is defined by the capacity of a work to take on a life, or afterlife, of its own. In this respect, it is worthwhile considering the Russian Revolution as a product of competing narratives, and characters, that emerged in the formidable Russian literature prior to the events.

The duel in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) between the young nihilist Yevgeny Basarov and the older Romantic Pavel Kirsanov anticipates the competing sides in the Russian civil war over fifty years later. Each character displays heroic qualities, Kirsanov in his dedication to poetry, Basarov in his application to science, and the tragedy is no reconciliation is found between these essential disciplines.

Towards the end of the novel both characters play for the affections of the former servant Fenichka, who has already had a child with Nikolai, Pavel’s brother. Pavel witnesses Basarov making an unsolicited advance on her and, in his passion, demands satisfaction with pistols at dawn. Basarov emerges unscathed from the ensuing encounter, but Pavel receives a wound to the leg and departs into a depressing German exile, along with his old-fashioned ideas, just as White Russian emigres would depart in their droves after the Russian Civil War. Fenichka’s character may be interpreted as representing a pragmatic subaltern class, who dismisses the vainglorious Pavel. Similarly Czardom would react irrationally to progressive ideas and thereby fail to accommodate, or defeat, political movements appealing to reason and science that arose in Russia before the October Revolution.

Arguably, like the progressive ideas that animated many Russian Communist during the Civil War, there is to be no happy ending for Basarov either after the duel. Already, ‘irrational’ and ‘poetic’ feelings of love had grown up inside him, contrary to his intellectual will, for the aristocratic widow Anna Sergevna Odintsova, whose rejection leaves him a state of depression. Basarov’s rational self prefers the idea of casual, and animalistic encounters but he cannot help falling for the worldly Anna, despite his equation of love with a non-sensical poetic sentimentality. Anna might be identified with an establishment that will never be reconciled to a type such as Basarov, who, despite his erudition, is stigmatised by a humble background. Civil war looms, just as Aeneas’s rejection of Dido also amounted to a rejection of peace between Rome and Carthage, and foreshadowed an enduring conflict between East and West.

Basarov’s final demise is also tragic. He returns to his loving, but traditional parents and sets out to bring scientific rationality to freed serfs through his medical practice. But in the course of tending to the sick he too contracts an illness, from which he dies. Reason, it appears, cannot be implanted in the dark, irrational soil of Russia. The possibility of a peaceful resolution to Russia’s contradictions is glimpsed, however, in each of the successful love affairs of son and father, Arkady and Nikolai Kirsanov, the latter of whom bridges a class divide with his marriage to Fenichka. Both appear as a middle course between the competing extremes of Basarov and Pavel Kirsanov, but are less vivid, heroic and intelligent characters. It is hard to identify any real hope in Turgenev’s exile account of the looming conflicts in his homeland.

Likewise, the tactics proposed by Shigalyov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Devils (1872) seem to have been played out many years later in the Soviet Union under Lenin, and especially Stalin. Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky explains the plans of the revolutionary vanguard thus: ‘He has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery’. This impossibility of anyone evading an intelligence gathering apparatus recalls Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, George Orwell’s 1984, and even anticipates a dystopian Internet future, leading to: ‘Complete obedience, total loss of individuality.’ Dostoyevsky intuited how a secret police would dominate in ‘totalitarian’ regimes in Eastern Europe, ensuring the Revolution would not be an ongoing process of social and intellectual transformation.

Once in thirty years Shigalyov permits, however, an upheaval and ‘everyone starts devouring one another, up to a certain point, just to avoid boredom.’ This reflects the timeline of Nikita Khrushchev’s overthrow of the Stalinist system in 1956, culminating in Leonid Breshnev’s takeover in 1964, and the more extensive implosion of the Communist system under Yeltsin (1991-1999), preceding the present era of stability under Vladimir Putin, who was once a KGB agent.

The salvation for mankind that Dostoyevsky proposed through the writings of the Starets Zosima in his later novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) has not been fully realised in Devils, although we do meet a monk called the Elder Tikhon whose philosophy foreshadows the Starets Zosima’s. He says to the character of Stavrogin after hearing him confess to unspeakable crimes: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin.’ Dostoyevsky envisioned religious faith as a moral force removed from the judgment from on high we may associate with many Christian denominations. Sin is seen as a collective error, rather than being attributed to any failing of an individual.

But in Devils the dominant voice of opposition to nihilistic tendencies eventually comes from the debauched poet and father of the revolutionary Pyotr, the liberal Stepan Verkhovensky who had been been tasked with teaching Stavrogin in his youth, with baleful results. In his last public speech at a fete which becomes the occasion for the descent of the town into anarchic violence, he pronounces with Byronic ardour:

I declare that Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs, more important than nationalism, more important than socialism, more important than the younger generation, more important than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!

The claim that mankind can live without bread but not without beauty rings hollow, however, when expressed by a person who lives in a debauched aristocratic style. In the end it is through a return to a simple Christian faith that the exhausted Stepan retreats from his hauteur. Rejecting a nihilistic liberalism, he renounces worldly possessions and takes to the road as a supplicant. But by then he is a wasted figure, isolated from his community, his poetic talents long squandered.

It is left to his amoral son Pyotr to explain that the murders, scandals and outrages were committed to promote the: ‘systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society an all its principles’, which would: ‘demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything’. Then, ‘when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self preservation’, his faction would, ‘suddenly gain control of it’. Thus Dostoyevsky through Pyotr foretells the methodology of the Bolshevik Revolution, and ultimate suppression of democracy in Russia. As in Turgenev, no reconciliation is envisioned in an impending civil war. Devils such as Pyotr and Stavrogin are beyond salvation it would appear. It is symptomatic that the character of Shatov, who has previously associated with the revolutionaries, but returns to a simple faith in God and humanity, is violently executed by his erstwhile associates.

It would be ludicrous to blame the excesses of the Russian Revolution on the writings of Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, but such active imaginations may be the authors of fate, and not simply prophetic. At least Dostoyevsky’s last novel The Brothers Karamazov offers a more optimistic vision for Russia, which perhaps still awaits. One wonders if a more rounded vision could have emerged if the author had written his proposed sequel. Alas, the premature death of the novelist at the age of fifty-nine, just a few months after completing it, ensures we will never know.

The novel was the dominant art form of the nineteenth century, but in reality few among a largely illiterate population, at least in Russia, would have actually read the texts we now see as dominating the period. Nonetheless, I retain a faith in the metaphysical capacities of great artists, such as Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, to shape the world around them; for their art to cross boundaries of time and space. At its height, poetry – especially that devoted to fictions – is a medium of revelation, which works without fear or favour. Northrop Frye understands that: ‘The poet is a magician who releases his magic, and thereby recreates the universe of power instead of trying to exploit it.’ This coheres with Percy Shelley’s assertion that the poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

This imposes a great burden of responsibility on the artist. But a genuinely creative person can never be held to account for the world she creates, and any effort to compel her to envision Utopian conditions is futile, as she is the agent of an unbiddable unconscious. This is the magic in art – and you just never can tell how the puppy is going to turn out.

(This article was published in the April/May edition of The London Magazine

Is Veganism Compatible with being Pro-Choice?

Is Veganism Compatible with being Pro-Choice?

Last month I attended a protest in Dublin against slaughterhouses, where the impassioned cry rang out: ‘HUMANE MEAT IS A LIE. NO ANIMAL WANTS TO DIE’. I am guessing the vast majority of that crowd was pro-Choice, as I am myself. But I wonder is there a contradiction if we urge people to stop killing other animals, but remain silent on the plight of a foetus on which (or whom?) an abortion is informed? Like it or not we are dealing with a sentient being, albeit one that is dependent on its mother.

I am proceeding with care here, conscious that as a man I will never have to make a decision as to whether another human being is allowed to grow inside my body. Nonetheless, I feel bound to tease out this ethical question.

An obvious response might be that this is a matter of bodily integrity, and that anyone should have a choice as to what they do with their own body. But isn’t that the same argument the meat eaters uses when he says: ‘It’s fine you being Vegan but I don’t want to be told what I can or cannot eat.’

For the purpose of this argument let me set up an idealised scenario: a world where Vegan values are incorporated into the law, and where it becomes a crime, ultimately enforced by the violence of a state apparatus, for anyone knowingly to kill or otherwise harm another sentient being, apart from in cases of self-defence, or perhaps survival.

I reckon many, if not most, Vegans would be in favour of laws protecting other animals from human use, although I recognise there are Veg-anarchists out there too, who have a problem with the idea of any state using the violence necessary to uphold laws.

For those Vegans (including myself) broadly in favour of state laws, protecting other animals from human beings using them for meat and other purposes, I ask: what protection would you afford to a foetus growing inside a woman? After all, if you aren’t going to eat honey for the sake of the bee, wouldn’t you extend rights to an immature member of your own species?

But as I said, I remain pro-Choice. Ethical questions are never straightforward and any law we contemplate must operate in real life circumstances, not in
Utopian scenarios. I have found a caveat which keeps me pro-Choice.

Even some of those opposed to abortion on demand accept that where a woman is raped and becomes pregnant she should have a right to terminate the pregnancy.

It would seem intolerable for society to tell a woman that she is obliged to carry a foetus for nine months, and give birth, in those circumstances, as is the case in Ireland today. Thus, a woman’s right to bodily integrity would trump any countervailing right of a foetus.

But the problem for those who are conceding a right to abortion on those grounds is working out how a woman should go about proving rape in order to have a right to that abortion. Even for a woman, or girl, to acknowledge to herself, and her family, that she has been raped may, in some circumstances, be traumatic. How can you then ask her to sign blithely on a dotted line that she has been violated, or otherwise make a declaration to that effect?

Would a criminal investigation then proceed after a declaration of rape occurs? This could have the effect of leading women to make false allegation of rape in order to get an abortion, which might even cause men to be wrongfully prosecuted. It would be a complete legal minefield if this were to be the exception to the general rule that abortion should not be allowed on demand.

This is a violent world we live in. Rape is far from being an unusual crime. One in five Irish women have experienced sexual violence, and the #metoo phenomenon has exposed the extent to which women feel obliged to perform sexual acts in order to advance their careers, which is not far off being rape.

Put simply, in the world we live in today, abortion is a necessary evil and a form of self-defence for women against predatory men. The rape exception leads to an all-encompassing right.

A major problem with the abortion debate in Ireland is that the media set up binary positions that narrow the debate unsatisfactorily. This fails to acknowledge wider questions on sexuality, gender roles and reproduction.

Newspapers are commercial enterprises that dangle click bait that appeal to the narrow opinions on each side. The difficulties are compounded by an adversarial legal culture that sets protagonists against one another, and pollutes the body politic.

The debate should not descend into polarities. There are quite disturbing scenarios where abortion might be co-opted into the design of offspring, selected for good looks, athleticism or intelligence; an extension of how the cosmetic industry help us design our bodies, for a fee of course. The superficiality of debate is symptomatic of the Neoliberal zeitgeist of dissonance; neither side acknowledging the arguments of the opponents, thereby preventing a progressive synthesis from emerging.

Justice emerges through observation and experience of the world around us. Instead of tablets of stone containing commandments for all time, we should find the language of justice inscribed on organic materials that alter with circumstances. These insights may be illuminated in the same silence that is necessary for poetic inspiration.

I remain pro-Choice and favour repeal of the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution.

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

By 1900, when Joyce and Yeats were strutting the streets of Dublin, Belfast had a higher population. Moreover, Ireland is the only country in the world with a lower population now than in the early 1840s. The extensive livestock agriculture that dominated after the Great Famine depends on low labour inputs for profitability, and the Industrial Revolution never took off. Apart, that is, from in the north-east corner where Belfast was the industrial powerhouse in which the Titanic was built.

Today, like many other former industrial regions across an archipelago commonly referred to as ‘the British Isles’, Belfast and its hinterland has fallen into seemingly irreversible decline. A succession of industries have departed, notably the Harland and Wolff plant, while efforts in the 1980s to resuscitate a flagging economy, such as the arrival of the DeLorean motor factory, failed spectacularly. Of course the Troubles played a significant role in turning the Northern Irish economy into a basket case dependent on subsidies from HM’s government, but this stagnation has more to do with Belfast being a part of the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, like other post-Industrial cities across the North of England. The peace dividend in Northern Ireland was negligible, and even after s spectacular economic crash the Irish Republic is considerably richer.

Working class Protestant and Unionist communities also lack a tradition of prizing academic education, while historically even poor Catholic family, across Ireland, would have been accustomed to having a bright son study for the priesthood or enter the civil service. Leaving school at a young age to enter into an industrial job was linked to religious affiliation in Northern Ireland, where Catholics were often discriminated against. ‘Low church’ Protestantism tended to encourage education to a point where a person could read the bible in their vernacular. Catholicism on the other hand invited scholarship in a number of languages, as well as surveying a philosophical tradition dating back to Aristotle. This brought Irish Catholics into the mainstream of European culture.

The dominance of the Catholic Church over education in the Republic permitted terrible abuses, but religious orders played an important role in educating a population much of which was living in poverty, at least until the 1960s. Alongside the introduction of free secondary education under Donnacha O’Malley in 1966, this provided the intellectual capital for the emergence of the Celtic Tiger.

Until the late 1990s, Ireland was a highly conservative society by European standards, with divorce permitted only after a referendum in 1996, but since then the liberal intelligentsia have become the dominant force politically. The Marriage Equality Referendum revealed the increasing dominance of liberal ideas in mainstream media and politics. The victory of the unapologetically gay and half-Indian Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership election this year, and his subsequent popularity, appeared to reveal the Irish as a cosmopolitan outward-looking people; although continued absence of access to abortion in the Republic puts the state at odds with most other countries.

Having secured peace through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the gun seemed to have been finally taken out of all-Ireland politics, and since then Southern Irish liberals have tended to ignore the North. Most Dublin people I know have absolutely no interest in visiting there either, even though it’s only a couple of hours away. But Brexit and the prior collapse of the Northern Executive has re-acquainted liberal Ireland with the Northern Question, just as Westminster is now haunted once again by its own existential Irish Question.

It is hardly surprising that the DUP, which now represents the main body of working class Unionists, aligned itself with the Brexiteers in the UK. Lest we forget, Brexit was to some extent the revolt of the English working class who were doing poorly under the Common Market. Cities such as Sunderland (61%) and Hull (67%), structurally, and in religious makeup, similar to Belfast, voted by large majorities to leave the Union.

There were many reasons for Brexit, and also for the success of Trump, not least the cognitive unwinding that seems to have come about in the first wave of the Internet Revolution. The sounds chambers of social media seem to have amplified grievances and opinions. Liberal and Conservative have each become more shrill in their condemnation of one another, epitomised by Hilary Clinton’s condemnation of ‘the basket of deplorables’ who supported Trump.

This may have helped Trump’s side characterise themselves as defenders of a put-upon common man in states such as Pennsylvania. Liberal condemnation of the ‘white’ working class is common across Europe, as any defence of cultural relativism excusing their conduct does not usually apply. Simon Kuper observed in the Financial Times (17/2/16) when visiting white working class areas in Manchester and Lyon that he: ‘hadn’t realised just how much the white working classes are mocked.’ They can be referred to as ‘chavs’ in Britain, ‘white trash’ in the US and, sometimes ‘beaufs’ (‘oiks’) in France: ‘“Poverty porn” TV shows make fun of supposedly lazy, half-witted, track-suited scroungers.’ As a result: ‘Many poor whites complain that the “elite” care about ethnic minorities and gay people but not about them.’ This old-fashioned social snobbery is often evident in ‘respectable’ journalism, and its ventilation does not breach the same taboo as racism.

In the Irish media and politics the DUP are often portrayed as equivalent to a white trash on the economic scrapheap, with their noxious homophobia and ludicrous low church Protestantism. The high priest of Irish liberalism Fintan O’Toole often subjects them to ridicule, which falls short of outright abuse. Thus he wrote in June:

Dante and Beatrice. Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Cyrano and Roxane. Don Quixote and Esmeralda. These unrequited loves have great poignancy. But they’ve nothing on the tenderest, most poignant tale of unrequited love in our times, the tragically one-sided crush the DUP has on Britain.

He takes an unseemly glee at their political naivete:

It is one thing to be infatuated with someone who just ignores you. The unfulfilled love retains its bittersweet purity, its dreamy half-life of pure possibility. But the true tragedy occurs when your love is apparently consummated at last and you find that the loved one really despises you. The DUP has long dreamed of being wrapped fully in the warm embrace of the Tory world with which it strives so hard to identify. And now, miraculously, its moment has come. But the loved one is thinking of England, sneaking glances at her watch and praying “Oh god! When will this be over?”

The commonalities between the English working class ‘chav’ and the DUP ‘trash’ become more apparent:

does it [the DUP] notice that, even as the Tory party clasps it to its bosom, the lack of enthusiasm would be scarcely less evident if the Tories were wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks? They are not swooning with love, they are fainting with revulsion. The DUP may think it is coming home; most Tories think the mad woman has come out of the attic of an old hyper-Protestant British identity and is sitting in the parlour demanding tea and scones with lots of jam and a bucket of clotted cream. She has to be humoured for now, but only until there is some way to get rid of her.

O’Toole has also been a trenchant critic of the inequalities that beset ‘liberal’ Ireland, but an article he wrote in June for the New York Times puts a rather different spin on modern Ireland. He wonders whether Irish people should be allowed a moment of schadenfreude as we ask whether the Brexit-voting English are fit for self-government, and refers to Theresa May government’s reliance in Westminster on a small party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, that trades on a ‘backward expression’ of British and Protestant identity.

He contrasts this with Dublin where a new prime minister Leo Varadkar is 38, half-Indian and gay, as well as being ‘leader of what is traditionally the most conservative of the Irish political parties, Fine Gael, long a bastion of Catholic moral values.’ Irish people he says ‘like him or dislike him to the extent that they like or dislike his party and the minority government it leads. The rest is just personal detail, interesting but of minor significance.’ Surprisingly, there is no mention of Varadkar’s conduct as Minister for Social Protection when he launched a campaign against ‘welfare cheats’, which seemed a calculated appeal to his own thrusting constituency.

Moreover, I am not convinced the Catholic Right has been completely extinguished from Irish politics. Overall, I find the tone unsettling: the division between the backward DUP, and the suave cosmopolitan Irish, epitomised by Mr Varadkar. O’Toole also reminds his American readers that Varadkar is a doctor now faced ‘with a neighbor going through a nervous breakdown’, which, ‘will need his best bedside manner.’ The intellectual gap is emphasised, but O’Toole must surely recognise that the shrill superiority of the liberal emboldens the reactionary.

One senses that this is a journalist playing to his gallery, and, frankly, seeking clicks online. An intellectual such O’Toole can do better. Indeed, one of the reasons why the DUP scuppered Theresa May’s first attempt to agree on terms with her European counterparts may have the crowing from the Irish media, not just of politicians.

On RTE’s Liveline, where our old friend Damien O’Reilly was sitting in for Joe Duffy, a pro-Remain Unionist guest, Will Taylor, told the aspiring shock-jock that ‘the example you give is almost inflammatory’. O’Toole himself, in reaction to the final agreement, triumphantly wrote: ‘To adapt Henry Ford, Britain can have any Brexit it likes, so long as it is green.’

I would like to see a United Ireland come about in my lifetime because I think the presence of a border represents a failure to reconcile diverging ideas. I believe the industrious Unionist people have a lot to offer the Republic; Protestant rationality has bred technical acumen that seems to have missing since the inception of the Irish state. I also suggest that stolid working class Unionist values would not have permitted the level of mendaciousness which has been tolerated of politicians in this Republic. The great tragedy of Irish history in my view is the failure of the United Irishmen of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter to remain a political force.

And let us not delude ourselves as O’Toole seems to be in some of his gushing articles in the foreign press, the Liberal, or really Neoliberal, Ireland of Varadkar is a country increasingly short on compassion for the poor. Health and education provision are steadfastly two tier, and if you don’t work in the corporate sector there is little chance of you even being able to afford to rent a house in Dublin’s city centre. The streets of Dublin are still filled with human casualties that hark back to a time when the city had comparably poverty to Calcutta, and the area beyond the Pale never recovered from the Crash. Varadkar’s only ideological commitment is to people who get up early in the morning, like himself.

While rejecting their xenophobia and homophobia, I suggest Irish politics could benefit from integrating working class values and technical skills. It might even be able to stop looking at Brexit as an earth-shattering calamity, but an expression of British exceptionalism that was never going to be accommodated in an ever-closer European Union.

I even dream of a time in Ireland when social discontents are no longer channelled through parties that draw their identities from approaches to the national question, from Fine Gael through to the DUP. If anyone wants to see a United Ireland they should be receptive to the Unionist identity, and failure to accommodate this is also a failure of imagination.

Paradise Papers, ‘Regulatory Capture’ and Democracy

Paradise Papers, ‘Regulatory Capture’ and Democracy

We may fulminate against a corrupt nexus connecting multinational capital and a deep state, but identifying clear illegality is more difficult. The collapse of the Anglo-Irish trials shows ‘white collar’ crime is difficult to prosecute. This is because much of what is widely considered immoral behaviour falls short of criminality.

The generally accepted distinction here is between tax evasion and tax avoidance, the latter of which can be technically compliant. Transactions exposed in the Paradise Papers were, it may be assumed, largely in the category of tax avoidance.

A number of Irish Times journalists participated on a transnational investigation conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), yielding evidence of companies and individuals – including U2’s Bono – channelling of assets or income through countries with low taxation regimes. These transactions were undertaken, in many instances, on the advice of one or other of the ‘top 5’ accountancy firms in the world.

A particular specialism of these firms is to advise clients how to transfer assets between jurisdictions so as to avoid tax liabilities. Highly-educated individuals develop esoteric legal instruments and mathematical models that would defy the comprehension of most of us.

Such expertise also calls for intimate knowledge of the practical workings of a particular fiscal agency in a given country. This may lead to ‘Regulatory Capture’, which has been observed across a range of sectors including Pharma and Transport.

It could cover a situation where an individual gains experience in the state sector – working for NAMA say – leaves his job and then takes up employment in an accountancy or other advisory firm. Direct conflicts of interest, which could give rise to illegality, are naturally avoided; so-called gardening leave may even be demanded in some cases. But intimate knowledge of the workings of state institutions – and perhaps continued social relations – is of great value when it comes to a firm advising a client on how they should go about doing business anywhere, including Ireland.

Niamh Callaghan describes ‘regulatory capture’, as being where: ‘one operator in the market uses its influence or resources to extract a regulatory decision, or lack of decision, for their own benefit rather than the benefit of society as a whole’. It is a form of lobbying that is not subject to legal controls and disclosure requirements, for the benefit of a particular company or sector.

With these lenses I perused a recent opinion article in the Irish Times by Padraig Cronin of the accountancy firm Deloitte, one of the ‘top 5’ accountancy firms mentioned in the Paradise Papers. It is also noteworthy that the Irish Times Opinion Editor John McManus worked with the ICIJ.

As a long-time observer, and recent contributor, to this page I see an attempt to strike a balance between left and right views, although this occurs in a newspaper with a structural reliance on generally multinational commercial advertisers. This inevitably affects editorial positioning, favouring broad acceptance of the fiscal status quo, including our low corporation tax regime.

One can imagine that Deloitte contacted the Irish Times and argued that the editor, in the interest of balance, should carry an article representing their views, which would provide a balance to the paper’s coverage.

In the article that was accepted, Vice-Chairman Padraig Cronin begins by counselling that business operates best when there is legal certainty. On the surface, this is reasonable, but he also implies that no government should endeavour to change our fiscal regime. His rationale is: ‘Ultimately, the private sector creates jobs and opportunities, with government policy being the key enabler.’

The characterisation of government as “enabler”, and the private sector creator as “creator” of jobs and opportunities is a profoundly ideological statement, disregarding the creative work the state does in a whole range of sectors. A teacher is surely a creator of jobs and opportunities for a student, however deficient our Leaving Certificate regime.

In many of the most developed European states disproportionately large state sectors exist, and no business without a private security force could operate without a state holding a monopoly on violence in a given territory. Private enterprise may have an important role in harnessing human creativity, but a state can generate economic activity without private enterprise, however inefficiently, whereas private enterprise requires a state to operate.

Mr Cronin justifies the ‘various complex but legal methods used by businesses and individuals to minimise their tax bills’, meaning the bespoke advice on tax avoidance that firms such as his own offer at a rate no ordinary person could afford. The rule of law that underpins these methods is then referred to as ‘a key foundation stone of democracy’.

There is, however, a distinction between the Rule of Law and positive law. The idea of the Rule of Law was conceived in Classical antiquity by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, who said: ‘True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions.’ Positive law, on the other hand, is any law, however unjust, which is passed by a legislature, carried out by an executive and upheld by a judiciary.

Mr Cronin also contends that ‘it is the role of an elected government to fulfill the wishes of an electorate as regards what the laws (including on taxation) should be’; followed by: ‘it would undermine the democratic model if corporate behaviour were judged not against how well it complied with the law, but against more subjective criteria and opinions.’

This is disingenuous, to say the least. The vast majority of voters in elections have little idea of how different tax codes work, which is why these specialists can charge such high fees for their services. Moreover, any bill that passes through Dail Eireann is the legacy of not only Dail committees, but also the oversight of civil service draftsmen and the influence of lobbyists; we also know that voting populations are easily manipulated, especially by those with deepest pockets.

Democracy, to quote Churchill is the ‘least worst system’, so let’s not pretend otherwise. In Ireland, as many environmentalists find, it takes an exhausting level of effort to bring stories that do not reflect well on big business to public attention.

Yet another contradiction emerges when Mr Cronin urges the government to make a long-term commitment to follow recommendations of the ‘OECD-sponsored base-erosion and profit-shifting (Beps) process’. These are non-binding legal instruments which purport to close off tax loop holes in participating states. Leaving aside the democratic oversight he previously urged, he argues that to ‘ensure it obtains a fair share of the increased tax take of this state must move at the same pace as other countries while maintaining its competitiveness as a location.’

He is now saying it is the OECD’s advice we should heed, and we may assume there is no better organisation than a top-5 accountancy firm to guide any client on what will emerge from the research of this transnational agency. But an important caveat is added: “while maintaining its [Ireland’s] competitiveness as a location”. A pro-business (or really pro-multinational) exception, maintaining our low rate of corporation tax, is thus lodged in his submission alongside (or perhaps at variance with) OECD recommendations.

The next paragraph speaks directly to Taoiseach Varadkar, calling for an examination of our tax strategy, presumably insofar as it relates to the “competitiveness” exception rather than adhering to OECD recommendations. Has democratic accountability asserted itself over OECD recommendations again?

In the most brazen passage of the article he writes: ‘If we do not do so we might all be “getting up early in the morning to work hard” but others could be eating our lunch.’ Cronin seems unaware that that is precisely the purpose of taxation: to ensure the poorest can eat lunch even if they are out of work, or homeless.

A coded message then seems apparent when he says: ‘Ireland now needs to determine how it will play to win within the evolving Beps framework’. What exactly does “playing to win” mean in this context? I suspect it relates to regulatory capture; dangling long-term incentives to officials of the Irish state in their negotiations with officials from other jurisdictions in order to manipulate a favourable tax regime.

Cronin returns to the theme of certainty in the closing paragraphs, calling for the government to set out a road map to 2030 that would bind future administrations: ‘sticking to it would send a powerful message to the business community that it should feel it is safe to get on with business and underpin economic growth’.

An earlier appeal to democracy is forgotten once again when he argues: ‘knee-jerk reactions by governments are bad for business, certainly with a knock-on negative impact on economic growth. We need to avoid these’. In other words: democracy is fine when it works to our advantage.

I also wonder who he means by “we”? Is that the Irish people living in a period of stark income inequality, or is he referring to the plutocratic circles in which he presumably moves?

Less damningly, he refers to research by OECD showing that a greater focus on consumption and property taxes would be more equitable than increasing income tax, again ‘while maintaining a competitive corporate tax regime’. Disregarding the bias of someone who undoubtedly enjoys a six-figure income there is merit to higher property taxes, particularly on unoccupied properties, while Carbon and Sugar taxes are eminently sensible. But he appears to be advising that low corporation tax regime should be defended at all costs.

He concludes with a slightly forlorn request that companies playing: ‘by these rules should be allowed to get on with business without fear of criticism.’ He seems to saying: stop investigating our activities because what we are doing is legal.

Accountancy firms such as Deloitte have been subjected to stinging criticism in the UK over the Paradise Papers, and not just by Labour leaders. Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: ‘Some years ago it emerged the big banks were facilitating tax avoidance and a code of conduct was introduced. It’s surprising and regrettable that accountants have seemingly failed to take the hint and carried on regardless.’

Even Justine Greening, the education secretary, acknowledged on BBC’s Question Time: ‘As we close down these [tax avoidance] schemes, accountants and lawyers will try and find out new ones, and that is why this business is never really complete.’

The evidence which has come from the Paradise Papers regarding Deloitte and other accountancy firms does not appear to involve illegality. For a firm such as Deloitte to advise a client to commit a criminal offence would be bad for business, and in any case, often unnecessary. This should be the case in Ireland where a multinational-friendly fiscal regime is already in place, but even then companies such as Apple have managed to pay virtually no corporation tax. Regulatory Capture, along with the best professional minds, allows firms such as Deloitte to develop greater acquaintance than even the government on the import of the state’s tax codes.

The rewarding of individuals in the state sector who work on behalf of private interests is almost untraceable. The pay-off may come much later in the form of a directorship or other sinecure. It might never arrive. But, we can assume that within the state sector a certain ideological conformity underpins the perseverance of sacred cows such as a low corporation tax regime, protection of which seemed to have been the government’s one red line during the bank bailout negotiations.

Whether a different Ireland can be built, one that is not a tax haven for multinationals, is rarely considered. A substantial, though diminishing, upper middle class does well under the current regime, while both of the main political parties favour the current model. I wonder can we imagine another kind of Ireland.

The Technological Savage

The Technological Savage

(Published in the Dublin Review of Books, December 2017)

In 1983 the world came within a whisker of nuclear Armageddon when Soviet satellite photos mistakenly revealed NATO missiles in the sky. Only the impulsive refusal of Russian officer Stanislav Petrov to believe his eyes prevented mutually assured destruction being set in train. Now a US President threatens to ‘totally destroy’ another nuclear-armed country – with twenty-five million inhabitants – using the same technology. Evisceration by mistake or design, it hardly matters to the millions of people and other life forms caught in the conflagration. It just takes one fat finger to push the button, or for that matter to pull the trigger on conventional weapons widely available to citizens of the dominant superpower.

Armed with such weapons, it is hard to rebut Carl Jung’s charge that modern man is a ‘technological savage’. He believed this stemmed from denial of a primitive or primordial self, previously expressed in religious rituals and popular rites. Instead the intellectual zeitgeist is an ideal of infinite progress that permits rapid digestion of the planet, with scientists often oblivious to the consequences of their innovations. Homo sapiens has long displayed destructive tendencies, and, armed with our latest tools, we wreak unprecedented environmental havoc, while mistakenly assuming that technological advances improve our collective decision-making. How we chart a course for humanity requires different lenses, as Yuval Noah Hariri points out in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Hariri: ‘by definition it [science] has no pretensions to knowing what should be in future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.’ Science must be reconciled to these objectives.

Nuclear proliferation after World War II raised the stakes such that Nuclear Powers have not waged war with one another since Japan was bombed into submission in 1945. Instead, we saw proxy conflicts from Greece to Afghanistan throughout the Cold War, and further peripheral engagements since the fall of the Soviet Empire, but none between members of the nuclear ‘club’, or their allies. No wonder the leader of a ‘rogue’ state should wish to join the top table, having witnessed the grizzly fate of other ruling regimes previously stigmatised. But if we are to take the hectoring ‘leader of the free world’ at his word, even nuclear capability may no longer confer immunity.

Nevertheless, Hariri proposes that ‘the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have gone to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the Atomic Bomb’. He admits the assessment may be naïve and, since the success of Trump and other ‘morons’, that seems increasingly so. One psychotic leader – and democracy is no guarantee against this coming about as the Nazis electoral success underlines – or just a technological glitch, could unleash a dread spectre. There is also the possibility of a nuclear power station malfunctioning, as we saw in Chernobyl; or being subjected to a natural disaster, such as a the tidal wave that washed over Fukushima; or even a reactor being attacked by terrorists. Nuclear fission is intrinsically dangerous, and its by-products almost eternally toxic.

The end of the Cold War represented our best chance of decommissioning these horrendous weapons, but this was not given serious consideration, as the United States of States took on the role of Global Policeman, with Britain acting as its obsequious sidekick. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 spelt the demise of a lingering hope for multilateralism.

Now the majority of politicians in Britain, including in the Labour Party, consider nuclear capability a totem of national sovereignty, and funnel billions into the Trident programme. The once mighty Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament barely flickers; its logo a vaguely nostalgic reminder of student idealism. The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons seems more of an expression of the aspirations of the Committee than a reflection of that NGOs ability to enter popular consciousness.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus (1818) is a great parable for our time, in which a bionic monster torments his master for failing to acknowledge his responsibility. It spawned a new genre in science fiction, which grapples with technological advances in a way novels usually no longer attempt. ‘At the time’, according to Amitav Ghosh, ‘there does not seem to have been any sense that Frankenstein belonged outside the literary mainstream, only later would it come to be regarded as the first great work of science fiction’.

The book’s disarming implication is of profound monstrosity lurking, not in an impressionable invention, but in humanity itself. The invention is neither beneficial nor harmful, but a reflection of the human world in which it co-exists. Victor Frankenstein’s creature is born with a pure heart, and it is only when his friendly overtures towards humans are rudely rebuffed that his diabolical tendencies are unleashed. Towards the end of the book he reveals: ‘When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair’.

Abandoned by his creator and without a friend in the world the monster casts a long shadow, killing members of Victor’s family. Crestfallen, Victor eventually consents to build a mate in exchange for an end to this reign of terror. But at the last moment he destroys her, shuddering to think that ‘future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race.’ In revenge the monster kills Victor’s own wife on their wedding night. United in grief, Victor meets his doom in a the polar wastes as he vainly pursues that shadow.
Finally, over Victor’s corpse the monster announces:

I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.

Through Victor’s belated self-sacrifice the genii is put inside the bottle, and humanity might endure. If only it was so easy.

A host of Hollywood potboilers have followed the same theme of the destructive capacity of scientific innovation. One such was the Terminator series which posited a nuclear calamity brought on by rebellious robots, who acquire the most diabolical human traits. A succession travel back in time to eradicate John Connor, the future human leader of the human resistance, along with his doughty mother, Sarah Connor.

In Terminator II (1991) the leading engineer of cyborg technology Miles Bennett Dyson takes responsibility for his work and abets the destruction of the technology, dying, like Victor Frankenstein, in the process. A further parallel with the novel is that at the end of the film the benign robot, played by Arnold Schwarzneigger, demands his own destruction in a pool of molten metal, exultantly fading away in the “light of that conflagration”.

In both cases catharsis arrives only when the inventor acknowledges responsibility. In the real world such foresight is scarcely possible, and once a technological frontier is crossed only rarely is a reversal possible: scientific advances often serve simply to amplify our destructive capacity, even if the original motivation is speculative.

Thus, although the unprecedented breakthroughs in physics during the early part of the twentieth century were motivated by a genuinely enquiring spirit, these developments permitted less scrupulous scientists to develop a nuclear bomb, and allowed even less scrupulous politicians to deploy it. Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb (1995) presents compelling evidence that President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Harry S. Bryant ordered bombs to be dropped on Horoshima and Nagasaki not to defeat Japan, but as a warning to the Soviet Union; and that General Marshall’s proposal to drop it on a non-civilian target was ignored. Geologists date the beginning of the Anthropocene from this point, and it is worthwhile considering human history in terms of ‘the before and after’ this terrifying exhibition of this technology.

History reveals that once one power acquires a new weapon whether it is the horse, the canon or the machine gun, the rest will follow or face annihilation. Rarely, if ever, is a military technology put aside. Moreover, even if an innovation is designed for the benefit of humanity it may well have devastating side-effects, as we are discovering with innovations such as the Haber-Bosch process that manufactures artificial fertilizer from natural gas.

This appeared to solve the age-old problem of field crops depleting nitrogen from the soil, and farmers having to keep fields periodically fallow. In combination with mechanization and improved breeding it brought the so-called Green Revolution that permitted exponential population growth over the course of the twentieth century. But besides seemingly solving the problem of global food scarcity we created another in feeding over half of all cereal crops to other animals, and developing an insatiable desire for meat. This has reduced much of the world to a patchwork of fields that rely on chemical inputs for life, and billow Greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Similarly, the Internet is an invention with extraordinary capacities for expanding awareness and knowledge, but social media has facilitated surreptitious methods of influencing voter behaviour. The current US President is a master of the short written form of the tweet, and his allies have also used Facebook to devastating effect. Unknowingly, the earnest scientific minds that developed the Internet have created an propagandistic monster, which threatens nuclear Armageddon.

Yet it is still commonly assumed that advances in scientific education elevate human consciousness. Expressing the optimism of the Enlightenment in The Descent of Man Charles Charles Darwin proposes that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”:

Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals.

Of course there is some substance to Darwin’s claim. Over the course of the last century the chance of someone dying in violent circumstances has diminished significantly. The archaeological evidence from prehistory suggests far more of us were killed in violent circumstances than is the case in most societies today. Life for the foraging homo sapiens was generally nasty and brutish, though rather less short than one might expect. The restricted diets of early agricultural civilisation, which also brought most communicable diseases from animal husbandry, lowered life expectancy considerably. But as for our relationship with so-called lower animals, that is another story: one of unremitting devastation.

Most creation myths hark back to a Fall before which our species lived in balance with Nature. Some contemporary versions imagine us living like bonobos, playing erotic games from dawn and dusk, as we swung through trees in search of sweet fruits. But well before the Industrial Revolution, or even the first Agricultural Revolution that produced civilisation just about twelve thousand years ago, homo sapiens had embarked on our wild career of ecocide.

An ability to utilise fire gave all hominoid species, including homo Neanderthalensis, a Promethean capacity to alter the landscape unlike any animal up to that point, but homo sapiens also exhibited an unprecedented tendency to wipe out large fauna, once we preserved a bridgehead out of Africa.

We began by eradicating bigger-brained relatives such as homo Neanderthalensis and homo Denisovan – although we acquired a few of their genes along the way – before hunting large fauna such as the Woolly Mammoth to extinction. Worse followed when we announced our arrival in the Americas and Australia by wiping out most large – many of them apparently docile – fauna within a short period of our arrival. As Hariri puts it: ‘the historical record makes homo sapiens look like an ecological killer’.

According to Hariri what distinguished homo sapiens from other hominoids is a capacity to invent fictions that are vital for togetherness. Such mythologies survive in modern societies, not just in religious worship, but also in legal fictions such as the separate legal personality of companies and the imagined communities of nation-states. A conceit also underlies trust in the money economy where the actual amount in coins and notes in circulation is less than ten per cent of the notional amount that keeps commerce afloat.

Moreover, we maintain the myth that we are, for the most part, doing ‘good’ in the world. But we cannot get away from the shocking casualties that our success as a species has brought to others. We are now living through the Sixth Extinction, but it is hardly considered newsworthy.

There are now over seven billion humans in world which have a combined weight 300 million tonnes, while other animals domesticated by humans weigh up to 700 million tonnes. All other surviving large wild animals (including marine life and birds) weigh a mere 100 million tonnes. That is a ratio of ten to one between the human world and wild animals.

Also, the conditions in which most domesticated animals now live and die is one of unrelenting torture. In Hariri’s plausible view: ‘over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.’ We may not be killing and maiming one another to the same extent, but technology allows us to distance ourselves from unspeakable exploitation of domesticated animals, while eradicating the habitats of most wild animals. Eventually as Hariri indicates, this ‘orgy of reckless consumption’, may destroy the foundations of human prosperity too. That is what many Climate Scientists are predicting at least. Is it too late to turn the ship around?

There is no easy way out of the pickle that humanity finds itself in. No bride of Frankenstein’s monster can be sacrificed on the funeral pyre. We cannot return to subsistence in restored forests, as these would never support our present numbers. Traditional methods of farming are not going to feed us either. The scientific revolution and the discovery by Europeans of new continents has got us into the mess we are in, and science has to dig out a way for us. Synthetic meats and clean energy are viable alternative, but we need to alter the terms of the relationship between science and other fields.

According to the philosopher Mary Midgely: ‘the very word ‘science’ which had originally meant knowledge or understanding in general, gradually became narrowed during the nineteenth century to mean only physical science’ She argues that if we are to deal with major questions we will have to combine ‘several different methods belonging to different disciplines.’ She charges the Pythagoreans with rejecting an Earth Mother in favour of disembodied mathematical forms in the physical world. Pythagoreans identified intuitive female qualities as evil, and good ones as rationally masculine, a tendency exhibited by scientists ever since, so she argues.

The prevailing narrow focus tends towards abstractions that ignores a wider assessment of consequences. The success of a polymath such as Aristotle is today unthinkable. Specialisation has reached a point where according to Richard Feynman: ‘There are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two department of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other’. Similarly, Einstein wrote that ‘specialisation in every sphere of intellectual work … is producing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist worker’, adding that ‘since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself any more’!

Scientists who go into great depth on a particular subject may lose sight of the implications of their innovations, just as Victor Frankenstein chose to ignore what he had done. We also face the huge problem of funding being directed by short-term commercial gain, and the influence of lobbyists on government investment. As Hariri puts it: ‘many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual curiosity. However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda.’ The education system as it is currently ordered ill-equips them for this role.

Any scientific education should be linked to an appreciation of the arts which lay bare the human condition and imagine a multiplicity of realities. Therein lies the key to charting the future. Thus Aristotle writes that ‘it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen’. A broader education should also encourage artists to become more scientifically literate, perhaps giving rise to new creative forms. In return scientists will be afforded the creative vision of art to plot a route for humanity out of the impending crises we face. The artist and the scientist may work as one.

More controversially, it is still possible to envisage a place for religion in the modern world as we seek to temper an innate savagery that has harnessed technology. As Laurens van der Post puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ The progress that Darwin observed in human empathy originates in large part from religious sensibility, seen in its widest terms. A dogmatic atheism is alien to our nature.

But religious devotion has erred terribly in venerating ourselves as God’s chosen species over the rest of Nature. Monotheist religions in particular must accept a broader responsibility, as the current Pope Francis has done, at least in part. We demand a Reformation in the human spirit to save us from intellectual savagery. The portents are monstrous. Either we come to terms with technological barbarity, or we face annihilation.

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Beyond #Metoo: From Hippies to Yuppies

Beyond #Metoo: From Hippies to Yuppies

On December 1st, 2017, the Irish Times carried an account of on an 11-year old girl who took her life weeks after posting a message on Instagram saying she was unhappy with her appearance and wanted to die. Prior to this she had written what appeared to be a suicide diary, self-harmed and scrawled ‘beautiful girls don’t eat’ along her arm.

Separately, the same edition reported that a jury convicted a man in his mid-30s of a sexual assault that occurred during a date arranged through the Tinder dating app. The woman in her early-30s – a foreign national learning English in Ireland – believed she was meeting him for a coffee. The man told Gardai he was under the impression it was a ‘hook-up’ for sex. She testified that the assault began after she rebuffed his advances to kiss her while they were sitting in his BMW in the grounds of University College Dublin.

Use of social media is notable in each case, but these tools amplify, rather than rupture, pre-existing tendencies in each gender. More poignantly, both lay bare pathological expressions of male and female sexuality in our time. The harrowing tale of the young girl reflects how many women feel under to reach an unattainable ideal of beauty. Young age heightened her vulnerability to social media, bringing premature exposure to dominant expressions of femininity. This is a manipulated demand for a highly cultivated beauty; which in a consumer society is perceived to be purchased, including through plastic surgery.

The tale of the Tinder date illustrates the value men attach to the acquisition of that cultivated beauty, and may react with rage if denied access to it. The man in the case could have felt that extended courtship via conversations on Tinder and WhatsApp entitled him to the prize. It is also notable that he drove an expensive car and was dating a foreigner, which placed him in a dominant economic position. Though seemingly sober, when his investment did not reach fruition all rational faculties deserted him, becoming, in the description of the woman, ‘an animal’.

When a woman invests in her beauty it becomes a currency valued by men, who bring a currency of their own to the sexual marketplace. This is often financial but it can take the form of a promise of career advancement, in exchange for the goods. Both sides can take advantage of their wealth, women of their beauty, men generally their money, although these roles can be reversed. This pessimistic generalisation seems to have long antecedents in the slave markets of antiquity, but its present iteration is a product of more recent cultural trends.

Western society is still digesting the seismic events of the 1960s, a period when objective morality both that defined as ‘Christian’, and that emanating from its Modernist rival Communism, were effectively abandoned by much, though not all, of the intelligentsia. What began as a countercultural movement, reaching its culmination in the Paris Spring of 1968, after which that generation assumed dominant positions in politics, academia and the media, merging into a singular entity that has been labelled ‘The Cathedral’. Above all, the countercultural movement was associated with sexual liberation, especially expressed through the Rock n’ Roll ‘revolution’, the era’s defining artistic genre.

The origins of this movement has been explored by the cultural historian Ian MacDonald in his superb account of the music of the Beatles, Revolution in the Head (2005). He points to the effect of a the drug LSD:

Though framed into terms of sexual liberation and scaffolded by religious ideas imported from the Orient, the central shift of the counterculture was drugs, and one drug above all: d-lysergic acid diethylamide 25, or LSD. Synthesised in 1938 by a Swiss chemist looking for a cure for migraine, LSD is a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement – an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it.

With the brain’s neural concierge removed:

The LSD view of life took the form of a smiling non-judgmentalism which saw ‘straight’ thinking, including political opinion across the board from extreme Left to Right, as basically insane. To those enlightened by the drug, all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With LSD, humanity could transcend its ‘primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility’ and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia.

He continues:

Using it, normal people were able to move directly to the state of ‘oceanic consciousness’ achieved by a mystic only after years of preparation and many intervening stages of growing self-awareness – as a result of which most of them not unnaturally concluded that reality was a chaos of dancing energies without meaning or purpose. There being no way to evaluate such a phenomenon, all one could do was ‘dig it’. Hence at the heart of the counterculture was a moral vacuum: not God, but The Void.

Crucially, McDonald states: ‘the Sixties inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity.’ He claims that this was a precursor to the New Right that degenerated into the 80s yuppies, the essence of the politics of Neoliberalism: ‘What mass society unconsciously began in the Sixties, Thatcher and Reagan raised to the level of ideology in the Eighties: the complete materialistic individualisation – and total fragmentation – of Western society.’ The Centrism of Blair and Clinton carried the main left-wing movements into embracing this “materialistic individualisation”, leaving the radical space to the right-wing populism of Brexit, and Trumpism.

Encountering The Void, leading members of the 60s generation lapsed into a lazy sensuality, epitomised by the self-immolation of icons such as Jim Morrison. For a long time the decadent rock star retained a sexual currency, as Michel Houellebecq describes in his novel Atomised (1998): ‘Young, good-looking, famous, desired by women and envied by men, rock stars had risen to the summit of the social order. Nothing since the deification of the pharaohs could compare to the devotion European and American youth bestowed on their heroes.’ In the novel, the character of David Meola, a failed rockstar, spirals into perpetrating Charles Mansonesque sadistic murders, while apparently emulating his archetypal hero Mick Jagger:

To be seductive he had to be evil, to be the perfect embodiment of evil –what the masses adored above everything was the image of evil unpunished. Only once had Jagger’s power been threatened, a clash of egos within the group – with Brian Jones. But the problem had been resolved in Brian Jones’s swimming pool. Though it wasn’t the official version, David knew that Jagger had pushed Brian into the pool; he could see it happening. It was this original murder which had made him the leader of the greatest rock band in the world. David was convinced that man’s greatest achievements were founded upon murder

But the sexual currency of the rockstar – a hangover from a distant Romantic era – did not last long, passing instead to the gatekeepers: executives in the entertainment industry, like Harvey Weinstein, that had rapidly usurped control from artists. Today the rockstar is an anachronism that spends much of his time compulsively checking his Facebook profile for new likes, and worrying whether he can afford the rent.

A wider nostalgia for the 1960s sustains a dwindling number of rock ‘franchises’, such as the Rolling Stones and U2, whic continue to earn vast sums of money on the back of their celebrity; the avant-garde has been decimated by the dominance of digital platforms, and the artist is merging with the entrepreneur. As William Deresiewicz wrote in The Atlantic:

we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial-self.

This, he argues, has come about because: ‘The Internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution.’

Rockstars, especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, really were once agents of a form of a liberation. However, as MacDonald observed, in their naivety they never embarked on the mystic path involving: “many intervening stages of growing self-awareness”. What remained was a basket of half-baked ideas around free love that unravelled once the collective hangover – that was the 1970s – kicked in.

Under a dominant market, an apparent liberation opened the way for abuse by economically dominant individuals, including providing opportunities for the assertion of aggressive male tendencies, which have long antecedents. As Houellebecq concludes: ‘The sexual revolution was to destroy the last unit separating the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.’

In response to the avalanche of allegations against Harvey Weinstein there have been loud cries against patriarchy, but the patriarchal order – in the West identified with ‘Christianity’ – for the most part enjoined men to show sexual restraint; although bringing a woman’s virginal qualities into marriage was the real guarantor of patriarchal order. Once married she became effectively a husband’s possession: in most countries marital rape was considered a paradox until very recently.

Parallel with expansion in women’s legal rights, since the 1960s sexual relations have increasingly been absorbed into the marketplace, including the multi-billion dollar pornography industry. A revealing aspect of the Weinstein cases was the absence of face-to-face intimacy through kissing. It was as if he had a shopping list of desires – from blow jobs to massages – he wanted satisfied in exchange for opportunities, or whatever else he dispensed.

An aroused male is a very violent animal. The accounts through history of what men, especially warriors, have done to women is shocking, and makes one wonder whether those of us with a Y-chromosome carry an Original Male Sin, as feminists suggested in the 1970s. Jung might have said that there is a rapist, as well as a murderer, in all men.

This male warrior archetype emerges in Virgil’s formative epic of Ancient Rome: the Aeneid. Aeneas symbolically carries his aged father (the patriarch) on his back out of a burning Troy – while losing his wife in the flames, as well as later rejecting Dido’s love in favour of his fate, or really ambition, to re-establish Troy as Rome. The character of his Latin opponent Turnus is also exemplar of Roman manhood. Turnus taunts his enemies:

We take our babies down to the river the moment they are born and harden them to icy water. Our boys stay awake all night and weary the woods with their hunting. For games they ride horses and stretch the bow to the arrow. Our men endure hard labour and live spare, subduing the land with the mattock and shaking the towns of their enemies with war. We are worn hard by iron all our lives and turn our spears to goad our oxen … our delight is always to bring home new plunder and live off what we take … But you like your clothes dyed with yellow saffron and the bright juice of the purple fish. Your delight is dancing and idleness. You have sleeves to your tunics and ribbons to keep your bonnets on. You are Phyrgian women, not Phrygian men.

Aeneas and Turnus eventually fight a duel to the death to determine who will win Lavinia the virgin daughter of King Latinus. She, along with womanhood, is condemned as ‘the cause of all this suffering, her lovely eyes downcast’. Christianity appropriated this ideal of the pristine virgin, subject to male, or divine, will, along with woman as temptress in the Garden of Eden, giving us, paradoxically Original Female Sin.

The response of right-wing politicians to the sexual revolution of the 1960s has usually been to call for a reversion to the old, patriarchal ways, last dominant in the 1950s – this is the substance of Trumpism, Steve Bannon’s brainchild. In Houellbecq’s novel the character of MacMillan the District Attorney who prosecutes Meola, and goes on to become a Republic politician, asserts:

decline in Western civilisation since 1945 was simply a return to the cult of power, a rejection of the secular rules slowly built up in the name of justice and morality. Actionists, beatniks, hippies and serial killers were all pure libertarians who advanced the rights of the individual against social norms and against what they believed to be the hypocrisy of morality, sentiment, justice and pity. From this point of view, Charles Manson was not some monstrous aberration in the hippie movement, but its logical conclusion.

The “justice and morality” that MacMillan is referring to are the traditional values that held sway as America asserted its ‘manifest destiny’ to colonise the ‘Wild’ West. That society saw women as second class citizens, who ideally conformed to ordained gender roles, while men waged war.

It begs the question how any man should contain his violent energies. Superficially, the commodification of sexuality through the market economy protects women from primitive male violence, as women now have a range of opportunities once denied to them to speak out against a violence that had once been tolerated. But the number of rapes that go unprosecuted remains truly shocking, and this occurs after an apparent ‘sexual liberation’.

In reality neither men, nor women, have been meaningfully liberated from destructive tendencies. Moreover, the violence against women is now often self-inflicted, through self-harming and punishing beauty regimes, including invasive plastic surgery. We’ve replaced one form of authority with another, and men suffer equally through this estrangement as financial wealth becomes a key determinant of sexual proclivity; a disproportionate number of men are committing suicide. All the while the possibility of meaningful love between couples diminishes.

This may seem an unnecessarily pessimistic portrait of relations between the sexes. An ideal of Romantic love survives – its endurance is attested to in thousands of soppy pop songs – although it tends to bring a set of fatalistic assumptions that have been conveyed by poets since the Troubadours. But I suggest the cultural stew in which we find ourselves makes even Romantic love increasingly untenable. Between the poles of a sexual liberation operating in an avaricious market, and regression to a conservative conception of a woman’s role, a middle ground is difficult to identify.

The ebb and flow between male and female energies is unlikely to ever reach a point of equilibrium. Although a resolution of sorts does comes about at the end of Atomised when the character of Michel Djerzinski realises a scientific breakthrough for precise human cloning, leading to the elimination of sexual reproduction. This prospect of a ‘Brave New World’ is a dystopian spectre, but I maintain we do require radical solutions to tame destructive male energies, saving women, and men, from themselves. In my view, this must involve a re-appraisal of our relationship with Earth, which is the eternal feminine, and has been exploited by a male will-to-power, the Roman mindset of Aeneas and Turnus, who despises “dancing and idleness”.

Can we recover a mystic path that was bypassed by the hippies with their use of LSD? This will surely be conveyed through poetry, and ultimately in new religious forms where the poet-artist is no longer an entrepreneur but a theologian, as Patrick Kavanagh maintained.

Robert Graves argued that ‘The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites.’ The thesis he propounds in The White Goddess (1948) is that:

the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry – ‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of the ‘unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute’. The language was tampered with in late Minoan times when invaders from Central Asia began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remould or falsify the myths to justify the social changes: Then came the early Greek philosophers who were strongly opposed to magical poetry as threatening their new religion of logic.

This might seem like nostalgic primitivism, but a matrilinear society where ego and ambition are less prized is appealing. We could also envisage living arrangements beyond the nuclear family – which is seen by historians as a product of the seventeenth century – allowing generations and genders to intertwine tribally. Marriage might also be seen in less formal and contractual terms. This might improve the prospect of real love blossoming between couples in the West, where sex has moved from being a taboo to an obsession in the space of a generation, linked to the arrival of the pill and abortion access.

Ultimately the forces of sex and reproduction are played out on a planet that has been exploited to the point of breakdown by our appetites, and where humans beings kill over sixty billion other animals for food every year. By controlling this ambient violence we may tame male tendencies of acquisitiveness and female self-mutilation, both of which feature in the tragic stories that I began this piece with. The #Metoo phenomenon is an important cultural moment, but it will only prove redemptive if we acknowledge the true nature of our societies, where vile discrimination goes far beyond that which affects women. Greater development seems necessary of repressed feminine qualities, which are not restricted to any one gender, and may open hearts to a genuinely “oceanic consciousness“.

Green should mean Red

Green should mean Red

The leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan has written an article for Village Magazine on the origins and current orientation of his party. I welcome references to seminal influences such as Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to the environmental damage wrought by industrial farming; and to 1960s ‘systems thinking’, culminating in the Club of Rome, which used the latest information technology to measure future use of resources, thereby showing the finitude of economic growth.

As a lifelong supporter, however, I bridled at his contention that Green economics ‘is not easily categorised on a left/right ideological divide’. In my view Green ideas build on Red for a better world, but with crucial differences.

Left-wing ideology has tended towards over-reliance on narrow socio-economic data, which underplays the wider human experience, and often diminishes empathy. As Isaiah Berlin puts it:

the calm moral arithmetic of cost effectiveness which liberates decent men from qualms, because they no longer think of the entities to which they apply their scientific computations as actual human beings who live the lives and suffer the deaths of concrete individuals.

That is not to diminish the value of carefully-collated statistics, but selective citation of economic data was a recurring failure of the Old Left, as was denial of natural capital, and the value of individual wellbeing.

A problem with Marxist theory, and ‘historical materialism’ more generally, is a view of the progress of man, and his happiness, in isolation from Nature, and divorced from a spiritual life, which Marx castigated as an opiate. The idea of anything being sacred, including Art, is generally dismissed. Thus Terry Eagleton writes: ‘Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value distinguished by certain shared inherent properties does not exist’.

Communist regimes caused enormous damage to the moral fabric of societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Rather than fostering empathy, they had the opposite effect of incubating materialism, and more selfish behaviour than might otherwise have arisen. The response of people brought up under Communist regimes to the plight of Syrian refugees has been instructive, and a theoretical dislocation from Nature permitted wholescale ecocide, including Chernobyl.

Eamon Ryan makes a valid point that Green ideology: ‘values our quality of life rather than just increases in the quantity of goods that are consumed’; and the pleasure my 85-year-old English friend Richard (pictured above) derives from his life bears out this point.

Richard prefers to spend the summer months living out of doors in a tent, and chooses to wrap up and take plenty of exercise, rather than pay heating bills during the winter months. Having given up driving long ago, he takes public transport or cycles, and has been a Vegan for over thirty years. Despite not flying, he is on holidays much of the time, including a recent four-month stint in the French Alps, where his advanced years gave him a free ski pass! He’s mostly joyful, and in rude health, while living off a meagre income.

While not everyone would accept the perceived privations that Richard happily embraces it has been established that monetary wealth only brings an individual to a fixed point on a graph of happiness. But everyone’s wellbeing, and survival, is now threatened by something far deeper, which is the devastating impact of mostly Western consumption on the planet. Richard himself is outraged and wants to organise a mass march on London to protest against government inaction.

Vast wealth now co-habits with shocking poverty in Ireland, and in fairness to Eamon Ryan he acknowledges this with his criticism of the American economic model. This battle against inequality must be put centre-stage, however, as merely focusing on environmental questions without first addressing social context risks making the party an irrelevance to the majority of the population.

Government parties argue that the population enjoys adequate social supports, notwithstanding the current housing crisis. But this is useless when lives are beset by anxiety over economic status, after sophisticated advertising techniques manipulate our behaviour towards ever-greater consumption. Many luxuries are now seen as necessities – not least owning a car – to the benefit of a declining number of beneficiaries, whose wealth is virtually untouched.

Marxist theory, relying on David Ricardo’s labour surplus theory of value, is correct that a free market leads to accumulation of wealth. That is the important justification for taxation of individuals and companies.

Seen ecologically, we have allowed a situation to develop wherein a small number of individuals are leading the despoliation of the Earth’s resources. Picture humanity as a forest that has spread over most of the biosphere, but within this forest there are certain trees that draw a disproportionate share of the water and minerals that sustain life, like Giant Redwoods towering over the rest, while everyone is running out of resources, and time.

That is not to say there isn’t a role for individuals, like Richard, who minimise their impact on the planet; but we need top-down structural changes to bring the giant interlopers down to a manageable scale.

Much of the power of capital now resides in a capacity to dominate the media space; we can see this in our own country where the white noise of news agendas infects the body politic, producing politics of incoherence and theatrical bile. To Eamon Ryan’s credit he is one of the few politicians who rarely engages in ad hominem attacks, and concentrates on addressing the important issues.

I believe, however, he must go further, and not simply in order to harness the anger over homelessness, and the absence of housing policy. Green politics arises as an extension of Marxist critiques of wealth and power, while acknowledging the limits of natural capital, and a human yearning for meaning through spiritual and artistic practice.

The influence of unchecked capital is evident in the deficiencies in our health system, which does nothing to promote health as opposed to treat diseases. As one general practitioner friend of mine forlornly observed: the health industry is indistinguishable from the wider capitalist economy. It is dominated by avaricious pharmaceutical companies and private insurers that sow fear. Leading Irish oligarchs such as Denis O’Brien (the Beacon) and Larry Goodman (the Blackrock Clinic) have stakes in a sector displaying the same wage disparities as in the wider economy.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s response to the obesity pandemic has been no more than a long-delayed, and tame, tax on soft drinks, which I called for four years ago. Moreover, the Irish Livestock-Industrial Complex has been allowed to dictate dietary recommendations, and the burden of disease grows each year. There is an important role for Green approaches to the health of society, as living Green invariably confers health, as Richard’s example shows.

Today a Neoliberal discourse holds sway which says that a conniving state is inherently inefficient at spending resources. This was articulated by Sunday Times columnist Niall Ferguson in his book Civilization (2011): ‘Private property rights’, he says, ‘are repeatedly violated by governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing our incomes and our wealth and wasting a large proportion of the proceeds.’

The use of the seductive “our” is revealing: Ferguson is really manipulating the low paid worker into a low-tax alliance with the Super Rich. This is a formula that the Republican party have turned into an art form in the United States. That is not to say that there aren’t serious problems with the way an étatiste elite wields power in Ireland. The salaries of many state officials are still disgracefully high. This is the legacy of the failed policy of the Tiger – boomenomics – and the grave planning failures that concentrated too many jobs in the capital city, driving up property prices as a result.

Green economics would embrace degrowth, and an aggressive response to the consumer economy, focusing initially perhaps on ending the use of plastics made from crude oil. That is a battle requiring more than a consensual approach, but it will be to the ultimate wellbeing of the collective, and Nature.

I share Eamon Ryan’s enthusiasm for a revolution in energy, which will bring an end to the use of fossil fuels, but the understandable worry is that the fruits of any windfall will not be shared evenly. In rural Ireland people don’t feel invested in alternative energy, and continue to fuel their cars with toxic fossil fuels that generate horrendous overseas conflicts, while many continue to extract peat from the precious remaining peatlands.

We need more than a technological revolution. A revolution in mindsets is required such that acquisition of monetary wealth ceases to be an overwhelming ambition. This will only come about when we alter a destructive relationship with the natural world, and see wealth in river banks not bank balances. A radical change in the way we ‘do’ education is called for, with far greater focus on human development than non-sensical state exams.

I welcome Eamon Ryan’s acknowledgement that we are losing the battle to save our natural world, including in Ireland, and I believe we cannot concede any more ground on this. The Green Party is primed to take on the Livestock-Industrial Complex and it should not shirk this challenge. To be an extremist in this cause will be a badge of honour to wear before the generations that follow: ‘What did you do in the Great War against Climate Change Grandpa?’

I anticipate a time when the Green movement becomes a mainstream political force committed to ending an exploitative relationship with Earth, and the patriarchal structures that underlie this. For this to occur we must take on the oligarchs, and their drones in mainstream media. We require a mass political movement that reverses the course of the great battle we are facing to save Nature, and humanity.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn showed that a leader imbued with principle, and poetry, can speak directly to a population when given the opportunity, especially through social media. The Green Party should be ambitious enough to take on the Byzantine political parties that dominate our dysfunctional system. These parties stand for nothing, and as we see this week, can fall out over anything.

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

It may come as a surprise that a Republican President, and former Allied commander-in-chief, Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term ‘the Military-Industrial Complex’ before leaving office in 1961. Throughout the Cold War, and beyond, the US arms industry has exerted profound influence on political decision-making. This has yielded vast federal investment in manufacturing operations, and brought sinister deals with tyrannical foreign governments, including, recently, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. society has been weighed down by this relationship with the industry, as Michael Moore poignantly showed in his documentary ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002). Moore pointed to how the presence of the arms industry in small towns incubates states of fear that can have terrible consequences, including mass shootings.

The Military Industrial Complex has been defined as: ‘an informal and changing coalition of groups with vested psychological, moral, and material interests in the continuous development and maintenance of high levels of weaponry, in preservation of colonial markets and in military-strategic conceptions of internal affairs.’

Replace “weaponry” and “military” with “livestock”, and “agricultural”, and it could describe the “informal coalition” of interests operating to preserve the livestock-farming sector in Ireland. This country is similarly dominated by the concerns of an industry that would hardly survive in a free market. This has long been evident in media reporting on Climate Change, and even when it comes to nutritional guidance from professional bodies.

Since the Great Famine (1845-52), Irish agriculture has been dominated by cattle-rearing for beef, and dairy; although Irish farmers have been no laggards in adopting CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), mainly for pigs and chicken. Michael Pollan described one such CAFO in the United States as ‘a place I won’t soon forget: a deep circle of porcine hell.’ He adds: ‘Specialisation makes it easy to forget about … the hog that lived and died so I can enjoy my bacon.’ Adding: ‘however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity’.

Ireland operates facilities on a similar scale as those in the United States. One such was found to be in violation of what are very limited animal welfare provisions. In February 2015 the Irish Times reported on a case in which pig farmer Rory O’Brien was given a jail sentence of 18 months. Judge Sean O Donnabháin said: ‘This is cruelty on an industrial scale by one of the biggest pig farmers in the country. On a continuous basis he knowingly and without regard acted in this way’. Inside the rat-infested piggery, animals were left to starve leading them to eat one another. O’Brien’s farm held over 2000 pigs. That implicates a lot of breakfast rolls.

A curious psychology appears to operate whereby, since the Great Famine, Irish farmers have equated growing crops with poverty. The first Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan (1922-32) was a substantial cattle farmer, and an export-led strategy left a deep impression on state policy thereafter.

During the 1930s, and especially the Emergency years of the Second World War, government policy necessarily shifted towards a more diversified agriculture, designed to feed the populace. However, since the 1950s, livestock agriculture has become increasingly dominant, and a host of semi-state organisations including Teagasc and An Bord Bia, intertwine with multinationals such as Larry Goodman’s ABP Food Group and the Kerry Group, to create an “informal coalition” with tentacles reaching deep into media and politics.

Successive governments have supported these companies, including, most obviously, the extension of state benefits by Charles Haughey’s administration to Goodman International in 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, which caused losses to the company estimated at £70 million. The Middle East remains the preferred “colonial market” for the Complex, including the disturbing live animal trade.

It is at least symbolic that while Minister for Agriculture (2011-2016), Simon Coveney’s brother and political supporter Patrick was CEO of Greencore, while another brother Rory was Strategic Advisor to the Director General, and Head of Strategic Partnerships, in the national broadcaster RTE. The alignment of business, media and politics lies at the heart of maintaining the informal coalition, and Coveney’s new role as Minister for Foreign Affairs, leading Brexit negotiations, should be scrutinised closely for his efforts on behalf of the sector.

European subsidisation from 1972, through the CAP, essentially keeps cattle farming afloat in Ireland. Accounting for over half of Ireland’s c.85,000 farms, the vast majority of dry cattle (“beef”) farmers actually lose money on their enterprises, relying on Direct Payments (subsidies) for income. Government intervention in the market has long caused distortions. In 1966 then Minister for Agriculture Charles Haughey claimed: ‘agitation directed only to getting higher prices may develop a kind of dole mentality which would eventually make agriculture subservient to the state.’ This “dole mentality” is now ensconced in a subsidy-dependent sector.

Prior to the introduction of the CAP in 1971 the economist James Meenan had claimed: “the small farmer cannot profitably raise beef on his limited acreage”. He contended that it is: “…increasingly recognised that price supports are of most benefit to the large farmers who as a rule, are least in need of them, and that such supports do nothing to provide a lasting solution to the problems of small farmers”.

Far fewer in number, dairy farmers (c.15,000 out of c. 85,000), also avail of EU grants, but tend to be profitable, while operating on the best lands in the country. Cleavages have opened up between the two – with the advent of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) in 1993 – although it is convenient for the more profitable farmers to maintain an illusion of unity through the far larger, and industry-supported, Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), at least for the moment. If nothing else, this allows the Livestock-Industrial Complex to associate itself with embattled small farmers.

The Livestock-Industrial Complex operates via a number of pillars in both the public and private sector, which have brought successive governments to heel and maintained a spooky allegiance to the “farming way of life” in mainstream media, especially through the state broadcaster. The Agricultural-Industrial Complex faces its greatest challenge in a generation, however, as the state is committed to reducing its carbon emissions at a time when the sector wishes to expand with the ending of EU milk quotas.

Over a number of years I covered the media reporting on this issue for Village Magazine. An instructive example came from an RTE Drivetime report from Wednesday, 2nd of October in 2013 about the connection between livestock and climate change. It began with presenter Mary Wilson stating: ‘A UN report (‘Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock’) on the contribution of livestock to greenhouse gas emissions has been rubbished as misleading and outdated by JBS, the world’s largest producer of beef.’

In the first instance it would surely be customary to begin with a commentary on the findings of the UN report, rather than the response of an industry representative. There followed a four-minute interview in which Countrywide’s Damien O’Reilly questioned Gerry O’Callaghan the chief Executive of JBS, a Brazilian company heavily implicated in the destruction of rainforests. O’Callaghan was allowed to question the veracity of the report and impugn the credibility of its ‘out of touch, ‘academic’ authors.

O’Callaghan claimed de-forestation was ‘being managed really well’, and ‘only a fraction of it is associated with the meat industry’; claims environmentalists vigorously contest. He went on to claim that the research used in the report was ‘out of date’, and that the industry was making ‘great strides’ in reducing its footprint.

Back in studio Mary Wilson proceeded to interview Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth. The credibility of the report was immediately raised: ‘Does he have a point. Does it devalue the impact of the report?’, she asked.

As is still usually the case, the environmentalist was placed on the defensive. But the psychological and moral influence of the Livestock-Industrial Complex seemed evident in his response. While defending the report, Coghlan said in effect that it was a good news story for agriculture: ‘Better pastures and better grasses – we are seeing that in Ireland too.’ Placed on the defensive, Coghlan failed to use the opportunity to advocate a significant production towards environmentally friendlier and healthy alternatives.

Our ‘paper of record’ the Irish Times has also been slow to highlight the responsibility of farming for emissions, and still tends to slide away from doing so. Certainly its food coverage emphasises meat and dairy cooking; while sympathy for small farmers seems to extend to an unwillingness to meaningfully confront the industry. The Irish Times also contends with the interests of significant advertisers such as National Dairy Council and An Bord Bia.

Responding to the then FG-Labour government’s Climate Change Bill Harry McGee wrote in the Irish Times on February 26, 2013: ‘The Government argument is that an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 means annual emissions of 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent, for everything. But agriculture alone accounts for 19 million tonnes at present. That means if everything else was reduced to zero, Ireland would still need to substantially reduce the amount of food produced, or dramatically cull national herds.’

He followed: ‘That is not a feasible solution, practically or politically, it is argued.’ The use of the passive voice tells us what we need to know: unspoken influences prevent deviations from a dominant line. The media bears a level of responsibility for the Irish state facing hundreds of millions in EU fines.

We also find the interests of the Livestock-Industrial Complex entering nutritional discourse, especially through the National Dairy Council. Maintaining consumption in the home market is clearly still a priority, perhaps for symbolic reasons as much as anything else.

The funding of research and development, including through charities, plays an important role in maintaining government nutritional advice that is not necessarily best practice, but ensures dairy in particular is consumed at high levels.

The Osteoporosis Society of Ireland was founded in 1996 by Professor Moira O’Brien as ‘a patient support organisation for those suffering with Osteoporosis and their families.’ Two of its leading sponsors listed on its website are Avonmore and Yoplait, and it has collaborated in the past with the National Dairy Council. As regards dietary calcium their website states:

“The richest sources of calcium in the diet are yogurt milk and cheese. Three servings a day will help meet calcium needs of an adult or child, five servings are recommended during adolescence and pregnancy. Smaller amounts of calcium may be obtained from other food sources, such as green vegetables, bread and sardines. It should be noted however that the bioavailablility of calcium from non-dairy sources is lower. Calcium intake can be boosted by including dairy foods in a variety of ways such as in smoothies, hot chocolates, pizzas, cheese sauces, lasagne etc. For some, milks fortified with extra calcium and vitamin D can be useful.”

This is at odds with the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) which say: ‘studies suggest that high calcium intake doesn’t actually appear to lower a person’s risk for osteoporosis.’ The authors refer to the Harvard studies of male health professionals and female nurses in which individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than were those who drank two or more glasses per week.

The HSPH states bluntly: ‘Calcium is important. But milk isn’t the only, or even best, source.’ They recommend: ‘Look beyond the dairy aisle. Limit milk and dairy foods to no more than one to two servings per day. More won’t necessarily do your bones any good—and less is fine, as long as you get enough calcium from other sources. Calcium-rich non-dairy foods include leafy green vegetables and broccoli, both of which are also great sources of vitamin K, another key nutrient for bone health. Beans and tofu can also supply calcium.’ One may fairly speculate as to whether sponsors influence the Osteoporosis Society’s recommendations.

The informal coalition of the Livestock-Industrial Complex operates at the highest levels of Irish society, and its role is rarely interrogated in mainstream media. A moral dimension flows form the Industry’s capacity to associate itself with historically downtrodden small farmers, now locked into the “dole mentality” Charles Haughey anticipated. Environmentalists should be prising small farmers away from this model and arguing for progressive re-rurification that will increase opportunities for employment in labour-intensive tillage and horticulture.

On a personal note, I would add that the “complicity”, which Michael Pollan alludes to, operates where the vast majority of the population eat, and enjoy, livestock-derived foods produced in Ireland. Nobody likes being told what they should eat, but until a greater proportion of the population shifts away from foods that have traditionally been considered an aspect of the pleasures of life – the butter melting on your toast in the morning; the Sunday roast; the turkey at Christmas; it seems unlikely that the Livestock Industrial-Complex will meet significant opposition.

Offering alternative dietary perspectives – a plant-based gastronomy – is therefore an important role for environmentalists. My own experience of shifting from a traditional gastronomic diet in my mid-thirties to a plant-based regime might perhaps be instructive. Contrary to carefully cultivated propaganda this was not an exercise in asceticism. I found my taste buds shifted considerably to a point where I began to derive enjoyment from different, usually healthier, foods. More importantly, I found my eyes opening to injustices that I previously took for granted.

After a name change, it’s politics as usual in Czechia.

After a name change, it’s politics as usual in Czechia.

Last Thursday I was given a Tibetan flag to wave in front of Czech President Miloš Zeman in the small town of Zabreh na Morave. The photo above shows me under a banner in Czech proclaiming: ‘we are ashamed of you’.

I had met a Czech friend off the train, and proceeded straight to the main square along with a substantial body of townsfolk. They had gathered for a speech by the increasingly decrepit president, who has announced his candidature in the forthcoming Czech elections.

The reason my friends were flying these flags was in response to a police crackdown on pro-Tibetan demonstrators at a public meeting between the Czech President and a Chinese delegation last year. They wanted to emphasise the democratic importance of the right to protest.

As we entered the square, an innocuous-looking character sidled up to us and revealed a police ID. He was not aggressive in the least, and said he just wanted to ensure we weren’t going to raise a hue and cry during the speech. Nevertheless, it was a sinister reminder of times not long passed when the secret police merged with the civilian population.

Most of the crowd stood impassively for the President’s speech, who was hardly visible to the crowd as his failing legs compelled him to sit down for the duration. He droned on in a monotone for about half an hour, and my friends could hardly make out a word he said.

Opinion polls indicate he is still popular, and a few partisans were in evidence. At one point I was almost bowled over by a stout middle-aged lady who said we were taking up too much space. Another woman also shouted at me for obscuring her view with the flag. But people who might be vociferous Internet trolls were surprisingly demure in public, and most refused to engage in the rational debate my friends sought.

It’s fair to say that the freshly-branded country of Czechia is not in such a happy place right now. The jubilation which greeted the fall of the Iron Curtain has long passed, to be replaced with nostalgia for those repressive, but stable, times. Now, a permissive attitude to alcoholic-fuelled festivity often proceeds to toxic self-harm. Drawn by greater work opportunities and relief from a native reserve that breeds resentment, many of the brightest have left the country; leaving politicians to stoke the flames of xenophobia, thereby obscuring growing economic inequalities.

President Zeman has exploited long-standing fears of an Asiatic Other during the refugee crisis, in a country that was criss-crossed by Turks, Mongols and other invaders. He expressed the view that it would be practically impossible to integrate Muslims into Europe. To the horror of Czech liberals he has brought a rapprochement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

What appears to be the extremely remote threat of terrorism is used to instil fear by exploitative politicians, many of whom trace their power to the Communist era. Now Czechia has its own version of Silvio Burlesconi in the shape of Andrej Babiš, who is keen to see the increasingly ineffectual president serve another term.

Babiš is the second richest man in the country, and controls a number of newspaper titles, including Dnes, the popular daily. His ANO (Yes) party manifests the same populist formula as Burlesconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, claiming to be neither right nor left wing, but really perpetuating a crony capitalism, which in Czechia grew out of Communism. ANO has recently become the largest party in the chamber of deputy. Only an outstanding corruption prosecution for appropriating EU subsidies is preventing Babiš from becoming Prime Minister.

Babiš is the Slovak son of a Communist apparatchik who was educated in a Swiss boarding school. He settled in Prague after the Velvet Revolution which divided Czechoslovakia, availing of his domestic and foreign contacts to turn the state-owned Agrofert into one of the largest companies in the country, with him as its owner. His career trajectory mirrors that of other oligarchs that emerged after the break-up of the Soviet empire.

The sad thing is that this is a country with great democratic traditions. Czechoslovakia produced political titans such as Tomas Masaryk and Vaclav Havel, who have been a shining example to the world; also the literature of Kafka, Hašek and others, offered an unparalleled critique of the power of an irrational state. Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in central and eastern Europe before World War II broke out. It is difficult to square all this with the extreme xenophobia that is found in the country today.

The town of Zabreh na Morave has its own ghosts that are rarely spoken of. In 1946 under the so-called Beneš decrees over two million ethnic Germans – so called Sudetendeutsch – were forcibly removed from the country, approximately twenty thousand of them dying in the process. Zabreh was known as Hohenstadt and was a German-speaking town, though the hinterland was Czech.

Zeman’s attitude towards this issue has been typically chauvinistic; even bizarrely claiming that Sudetan Germans had been done a favour by their forced transfer. Considering how the Czech people have been set upon by their larger more aggressive neighbours in recent history, it is perhaps unsurprising people should be unapologetic. But unless a nation addresses a dark past, historic failings tend to recur as we saw during the refugee crisis. The approach of my friends in Zabreh reassures me, however, that there are Czechs keeping the torch of democracy alight.

A New O’Reilly?

A New O’Reilly?

2017 has been an annus mirabilis for shock jocks around the world. Stateside, their doyenne, Bill O’Reilly was given his marching orders by Fox News, after claims of sexual harassment.

In Ireland George Hook was given an extended stay in the Sin Bin by Newstalk for laying a degree of blame on rape victims. Only months earlier his kindred provocateur Kevin Myers was also shown the door by the Sunday Times for comments perceived to be anti-Semitic.

The art of the shock jock is to shock but not to breaking point. As a character from a Woody Allen film puts it: “if it bends it’s comedy, if it breaks it’s tragedy.” The shock-jock skirts the boundaries of taboo, but can easily fall off the precipice.

Ultimately it seems to be the advertisers who decide where the red lines lie. During the Hook affair, in what was a masterstroke of public relations, Tescos let it be known they would no longer be advertising on Newstalk, getting a good splash on the front cover of the Irish Times in return. The following day the mighty Hook had fallen.

With so many heads rolling it begs the question: who will fill that angry space? One candidate might be RTE’s Damien O’Reilly who recently came to public attention for receiving a payment of €1,500, plus expenses, from An Bord Bia – Origin Green junket to Dubai.

RTE authorities were apparently aware of the payment, but O’Reilly has earned the enmity of leading environmentalists who see him as being to the fore in ‘greenwashing’ the role of agriculture in Climate Change.

On a recent Countrywide show he described anyone who advocated a reduction in beef and dairy production in Ireland as “critics on the extreme”; precisely the kind of imbalance we expect from a shock jock, who subtly shifts the political ground towards approval of de-regulated markets and personal responsibility; though not necessarily what we should expect from an employee of the national broadcaster.

O’Reilly has also taken aim at the tried and trusted target of cyclists in his Farmers Journal column, claiming the average Irish cyclist looks like he is heading off to compete in the Tour de France dressed from head to toe like Bradley Wiggins, before (he) “arrogantly screams to the rest of us: ‘Get out of my way”. There follows the standard, “I’m not really a racist” apology: “I am sorry if this sounds flippant, and of course there are law-abiding cyclists out there.” Again, the cyclist is the extremist.

But our own O’Reilly is unlikely to move on from his Montrose meal ticket, and sure why would he when he can moonlight as he pleases, and build up enough goodwill from agri-business for a lifetime of guest appearances and endorsements.

Then again he might find life increasingly uncomfortable in RTE as the cold winds of austerity blow through the campus, and media attention begins to focus more closely on the farming sector with the state facing hundreds of millions in fines from the European Commission. Already the Citizens’ Assembly have called on farmers to pay their share of the emissions bill after listening to expert evidence. But who listens to experts anymore?