TODAY, A NEW party, Sli Nios Fearr (SNF), is launching itself into the Irish electoral milieu, in the hopes of creating a new political alternative to the corruption, clientelism and duplicity of the establishment.
It has perhaps never been less controversial to suggest that politics in this country is fundamentally broken. Over the past four or more years of economic crisis, the veil of ‘democracy’ obscuring the agenda of the political class has grown ever more transparent, as the debts of the Irish capitalist class were handed to the people, and wave after wave of austerity has slashed and burned through the welfare state, without in my view even the merest semblance of a democratic mandate.
SNF are correct in concluding that the present crop of political parties have very little to offer ordinary people, nor will electing a slew of parish-pump independents to fight over the crumbs of an ever-dwindling political pie deliver anything significant for their constituents. However, their solution of electing ‘good people’ to political office to sort everything out is, unfortunately, hopelessly naive.
Introducing his new political project to TheJournal.ie readers, SNF founder and spokesperson Martin Critten claims to offer “a new party, devoid of past errors, past corruptions, self-interests and elitisms”.
While a party without a past can safely disclaim any past errors or corruptions, one can only wonder where all these people without self-interests will come from.
This observation is not just glib cynicism – our self-interests are an objective fact that exist beyond our control, and which shape our decisions and actions whether we like it or not. If I’m a politician who can take a bribe from a developer and get away with it, it’s in my self-interest to do so, however noble my intentions.
The common observation that if any of us were in Charlie Haughey’s shoes we would have acted in more or less precisely the same fashion should be taken not as an excuse for corrupt behaviour, but rather an acknowledgement that our self-interests are a real force to which none of us are immune.
Playing the game
This argument doesn’t just apply to corruption. Electoral politics has its own dynamics which are beyond the control of any one group or individual, which imposes a logic of its own on those who engage in it.
This is why, across countries and cultures – whatever system – first-past-the-post or proportional representation – however endemic corruption is in the political culture, politicians are universally reviled as liars who will say whatever it takes to get elected, but once elected, serve an entirely different set of interests: those of the wealthy and powerful.
It’s not because they’re all bad people (although some of them are) but rather because the pressure to water-down your politics, to obscure your real agenda, to speak only in contentless soundbites, and to say whatever it takes to get elected is built into the structure of the system. If you don’t play the game according to its rules, you lose.
The only alternative for ordinary people is to look beyond the ballot box and the politics of representation to a different kind of political engagement. Organising – within our communities, in our workplaces, on the streets – is the only way that we can force our interests and concerns to the fore.
The Campaign Against The Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT) is one example of this. While the campaign is not yet victorious, through organising thousands of people to engage directly in the political sphere it has thrown a quite a significant spanner in the works of the government’s plans to introduce regressive property and water taxes.
If our engagement with politics is confined to drawing an ‘X’ in a box every few years, and maybe phoning up Joe Duffy to vent in the intervening periods, then we will continue to have business as usual. A new political party, however sincere the intentions of its members and candidates, can easily be marginalised or assimilated. A politically engaged and energised population is much harder to ignore.