On the 19th August, 2017, The Irish Times published an article by Fintan O’Toole entitled The State of Us: Ireland’s story doesn’t make sense any more. The subheading: “Globalisation, migration and Catholicism’s decline have undermined stories of ourselves”.
In summary, he describes the various collective narratives which he feels have defined “modern Catholic” Ireland and explains why they are no longer relevant or adequate to make sense of Ireland as it is today. He suggests that we are approaching a post-national moment of a kind where the possibility of uniting or animating a people through a collective myth will have vanished or at least become very problematic. He ends by recommending “a secular pluralism, that frees up our sense of place and community”.
The following are some thoughts on the article.
“Us” and “Them”
The article begins where all Liberal diatribes begin. Nations are held together by narratives. These narratives are fictitious. It follows that nations are fictitious. There one has the first principles of the anti-nationalist position.
According to this position, there is no clearly defined “Us” and certainly no clearly defined “Them”. Identity is fluid and constructed. O’Toole does concede that “Us” narratives are “necessary” even if they are in his terms fictitious. But they should be “positive”. “Us” should never become “Not them”. Which sounds nice but is already approaching ambivalence. At what point does this “positive” version of “Us” become “Not us”? One cannot have a well defined “Us” without a well defined “Them”.
O’Toole is apparently someone who cannot bring himself to define the boundaries of an Irish identity or an Irish nation, in any practicable sense. At most he will say that we need a more pluralistic identity. Perhaps this too is a fiction and a construction but at least one certified by Liberal mores. In any case, the Left-Liberal diagnosis since the 1960s has been, “More pluralism” and now “More diversity”. But no Liberal will say “when”. No Liberal will say “The patient has had enough mass-immigration, or globalism, or openness or diversity”. The medicine will keep being administered until the doctor tires or the patient chokes.
Is there an “Us” and a “Them” in a modern pluralist Ireland? It might be worth asking that question, for there has never been a worldview or a social form that did not exclude what was outside it. That did not make distinctions between friend and enemy, between Self and Other. And though “inclusiveness” is the word of the hour, it is a particularly hollow one. As everyone who has ever organised a gathering knows, to include is to exclude. One definition, or series of definitions, excludes another. One narrative excludes another.
O’Toole presents us with six stories or narratives which he suggests have defined the Irish collective consciousness in the modern era.
If they were novels, we could call these stories, Survival, MOPE*, The Scattering, Thoroughly Modern, Top O’ the World, Ma! and Who’s Sorry Now?
*Most Oppressed People Ever
Roughly approximate to:
- Survival/ Endurance
- Exodus/ Emigration
- Modernity Overcoming Tradition
- Boom-time hubris
- Post-Boom guilt
It is not necessary to look at each one in detail because he has done so in his article. But we should make some general points. What O’Toole is primarily talking about is narrative. If one settles on a narrative, one can make broad sweeping statements about reality. And if everybody is tuning into the same narrative then there is a sense of collective experience. Collective empathy.
Almost everybody will agree that, following the Irish economic collapse, there was a sense of collective guilt in this country, rightly or wrongly. And when people say that, what they mean is Irish people. Irish people felt it. Not Polish or Brazilian people. Irish people felt it. Just as there is a collective response to the tragedy of Irish emigration. Irish people feel it. It is personal and culturally specific.
In order for it to be possible to have a collective experience, one must have a collective of people. A people who share a culture and see themselves as kin to one another, who respond to the same stimuli and who are familiar in each others’ company, who can spot each other across a room in a foreign land. They are kin to one another in the way all nationalities are. By the shock of recognition which forms the basis of all identity. Marshall McLuhan knew it. He said identity is an act of violence. The great compounding nature of history has crushed us into that whole, that communitarian foundation upon which a society is built. An organic society, not some socially engineered half-measure. Not some transient community that imports foreigners to have their children and to pay their pensions. An actual living nation.
In reading O’Toole’s article one is struck by his negativity. How can one write an article about Irish identity, about collective experience, about collective recognition and avoid in every sense, an affirmative statement about Irish people. It is astonishing. There is not one sentence in his depressing article that speaks to the potential of an Irish people. If anything he is concerned with surpassing it, negating it, getting beyond the miserable burden of being an Irishman and reaching some pluralist Nirvana, which if he ever reached would probably disappoint him. The answer to this question is that O’Toole is beginning from a premise, or in other words a narrative, which denies the possibility of an affirmative Irish identity. It is conscious on his part. It is not a coincidence.
How does this work in practice? The focus on narratives and storytelling is baked into the cake of Left-Liberalism through the academic institutions which form its core, embodied by post-Marxist literature and culture degrees, the vocabulary and jargon of which are now unavoidable if one wishes to read a newspaper or even listen to the radio.
The tendency of these Left-Liberal academics, which is the mindset that informs contemporary journalism, is to examine a subject, locate a narrative and poke holes in that narrative. The narrative is generally defined as “right-wing or fascistic tropes” so called. It is a technique of politicised literary criticism which has enveloped whole faculties of academia, to the point where they don’t seem to know the difference anymore between fiction and reality. Or very much care, for that matter. Hence, the professional Liberal is always attacking constructs and abstractions, themes if you like. Not men but “the construct of masculinity”. Not white people per se but “the construct of whiteness”, not Irish people but “the construct of Irishness”. And of course, they take no more responsibility for the consequences of these attacks, than if they were literary critics discussing the pacing of a novel.
One problem with this way of thinking is that it leads one to believe that one narrative can simply be substituted for another. Or to put it another way, it gives one an exaggerated sense of what social engineering can achieve. One foundational or collective mythology can simply be substituted for another. A globalist narrative for a nationalist narrative. Change the batteries and the machine keeps on going. If we get rid of masculinity we’ll still have men. If we get rid of Irishness we’ll still have Ireland. They’re just narratives. So goes the logic.
To give a rough example of this, take the following two narratives, each of which contradicts the other. The first narrative is perhaps Liberal in a broad sense, the second is perhaps nationalist in a broad sense.
Narrative No.1: The existence of a people depends on the stories they tell each other. These stories are myths, they are not real. The society is a construct of these myths. If we liberate the society from these myths we can overcome forms of oppression within that society.
Narrative No.2: The existence of a people depends on the stories they tell each other. The stories have a value because the existence of a people has a value. Destroy one and you destroy the other. We should preserve these myths in order to preserve the people.
Obviously we are suggesting here that Fintan O’Toole’s narrative, the Left-Liberal narrative is closer to the first of these two choices. But suppose one presented a Liberal with the following narrative.
Narrative No.3 Liberals depend on the stories they tell each other. These stories are myths, they are not real. Liberalism is therefore a construct of these myths. If we liberate Liberals from these myths we can overcome forms of oppression within Liberalism.
They might reply, “Well, there’s no danger of that happening, so what do I care?” And indeed, what do any of us care until the gun is pointed at our head and the thing we love is about to be wrenched away from us?
To be clear about it, we all have narratives. We all have stories through which we understand the world. The difference between Liberals and almost anybody else is that they view narratives/ stories/ myths as arbitrary, rather than contingent.
But the majority of narratives upon which functional societies are based, are not arbitrary. No more than categories are arbitrary. They may be fluid and they may change but they are not arbitrary in the sense that they come from nowhere. They are rooted in something. They have grown out of something. They are contingent. In the case of a collective Irish sense of experience, these narratives are rooted in the existence of an Irish people, which until very recently was not that difficult to define. And if there was an argument about it, the people involved understood what the argument was over.
The Iceman Cometh
Fintan O’Toole comes like Eugene O’Neill’s Iceman to tear down our illusions. To present us with the grim, unvarnished reality so that we might be free. Or deNazified as he might put it. Or as Liberals might define freedom. He presents us with six stories or narratives which he suggests have defined the Irish collective consciousness in the last century.
The Catholic faith which endured the famine, the sense of being an oppressed people, the trauma of emigration, the transition from agrarianism to modernity, the hubris of the Celtic Tiger, the guilt in the aftermath… These are the six narratives which he isolates. All of them of course have a large kernel of truth which we all recognise but what is striking is how grim they appear, especially as he expands upon them. There is not one that resonates today as in any way affirmative. There is not one that gives us hope or guidance. The common thread in most of these stories is failure or abjection.
If the Irish Times article were adapted for television it would include images of twisted famine victims standing across the river from the IFSC, stock footage of de Valera, pylons being erected in the 60s, people leaving, people splurging, the Troika, empty housing estates and in the last few minutes a short hopeful excerpt from David McWilliams interviewing Bernie Sanders at the Dalkey Book Festival.
One has to ask, is Fintan O’Toole simply an objective chronicler of indigenous misery or is he Misery looking for company? And if the latter is the case, what is the relationship between Irish Liberals/ Progressives and the narrative of Ireland being interminably miserable. Misery it seems is the oxygen of the Irish culture critic, it is the oxygen of the Irish arts, which can only bring itself to affirm the outsider. The creative arts in this country are addicted to misery. One would think that if 1950s parochial Ireland had never existed, there would be a great gaping hole in their portfolios. Because they need it so much. It defines them. Everything they do and are and create is a dialectical response to a misery narrative. For instance, it’s difficult to think of a cinema in the world as miserable and grey and dedicated to the non-existence of its own society, as Irish cinema. Even compare the way Federico Fellini dealt with Catholicism to the way our misery merchants have done.
In these six narratives, O’Toole has given us his interpretation of the solidifying myths of Irish society. He has given us his mythology of our mythology. Irish Misery, the selected works. And at the end of it, he makes a book recommendation or rather a recommendation for a new Irish narrative. One which will have to function without the benefit of an Irish people to tell it to themselves. And he calls it pluralism. Pluralism and a socialist Republic, whatever that might look like. For which we are supposed to hold out hope in a hopeless world.
The Post-National Moment
Ireland, he tells us “is a pluralist society with a monocultural hangover. Ethnic, religious and political diversity have grown at an astonishingly rapid pace because they have been driven by four equally powerful engines”. Broadly, he refers to mass-immigration, the popularity of EU membership, secularisation and the neutralisation of Irish nationalism through the Peace Process. All of this is true.
“Ireland moved very rapidly from ‘tradition’, not to modernity, but to post-modernity, the hyperglobalisation of an extremely open economy”. This is also true. But it’s interesting how he phrases it, for the Liberal always divorces himself of responsibility. The last refuge of the Irish Liberal is in vague platitudes about “post-modernity”. It is the literature critic’s phrase for the decay of the West into decadence even if they would never accept that definition. It is true that we have suffered from “hyperglobalisation of an extremely open economy”, which Left-Liberals pretend to be concerned about. But aren’t. They talk about the “post-modern paradigm” but God help anyone who talks about the factor of mass-immigration, which no less than the movement of global capital is a condition of “hyperglobalisation”. The truth is that they are at home, many of them, in the plurality and the bricolage and the stark reliefs and the chaos of their hyper-real, present-tense, anything-goes culture. And if it has downsides, these downsides don’t affect them directly or imminently. They affect other people.
For those who would prefer a more rooted society, the options are limited. Whether the spectre is Dev’s Ireland or the Celtic Tiger splurge, whatever the narrative, the answer is always “More pluralism”. O’Toole can grasp the idea that “people do need a collective purpose” a sense of ownership and belonging but there’s a problem. He suggests that we are approaching a post-national society. Which is an obstacle in certain ways to having a collective purpose. In order to think in those terms, one has to have a people surely? A self-realised people. How else can we be miserable together? Are we to assume that the next stage of O’Toole’s modernity is being miserable apart?
Alas, to the challenges of pluralism he can only recommend pluralism. His choice of fiction, his choice of narrative in a world where everything is just a narrative. His only fear is that the Irish might veer towards a Trump or a Brexit. His only fear is the Irish might actually launch a rebellion against the neoliberalism he has spent his career moaning about.
The problem is that people do need a sense of collective purpose, a sense that there is something that they belong to and that belongs to them. All the evidence is that if one set of stories no longer makes sense, people do not simply become realists. They become prey to any old story at all, especially one that has a potent contrast between Us and Them: Take Back Control, Make America Great Again. If there is no positive Us, there is always its evil twin: Not Them.
Unfortunately or fortunately, the Liberal narrative is based considerably less on the way human beings behave than most other narratives. Inevitably, what we will end up with is what other countries having gone down this path have ended up with. A very severe doctrine called “Inclusion and Diversity”, which will police an increasingly tense society, in which the State constantly has to intervene in order to keep people from going to war with one another. So, sure, we’ll have socialism, lots of socialism. Paid for by neoliberalism. And that’s just the beginning. It goes on from there. It gets worse before it gets worse.
Most assuredly, the pluralism which Liberals have for so long proselytised is upon us. But these people have absolutely no idea how to keep such a society together. That’s clear when reading O’Toole’s article. His worldview is not the product even of pluralism, but merely the reaction against a society which was not pluralist enough. If O’Toole thinks the “monocultural hangover” is something to write home about, just wait till he sees the multicultural hangover. Maybe by then he will have formulated a seventh category of misery and despair. But have no doubt in your mind that the recommendation at the end will still be for a narrative of pluralism and diversity. Of course it will. He picked his side decades ago.