Higgins keeps focus on other crisis - of ideas

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

WORLD VIEW:ACCORDING TO President Michael D Higgins, Ireland faces an intellectual crisis much deeper than the economic one we hear so much about.

He has repeatedly called in his speeches since becoming president and in his recent book Renewing the Republic for a much more engaged effort by public intellectuals and universities to provide the ideas needed.

He criticises the anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism in Irish life that undermine the communicative power of ideas for a stronger civil society.

The language of paradigm shifts drawn from the study of major political, social and cultural change is frequently invoked in these speeches to attack the idea that markets are rational, that a privatised, possessive individualism gives an adequate account of society, or that representative democracy cannot be reconciled with social transformation.

Max Weber, Ernst Bloch, Jurgen Habermas and other social theorists are invoked to make these points.

It is a refreshing change to find this intellectual discourse pressed home so determinedly – and variously, since it comes up regularly in President Higgins’s talks to citizen and community groups too.

He holds out a hope of democratic renewal and is confident it is possible and practicable. Those who raise eyebrows about whether this is a proper presidential role should look back at his campaign undertakings, his socialist convictions, and bear in mind his long political experience. It’s what we voted for, after all.

This week I was reminded of these themes when the President spoke in NUI Maynooth to mark the 75th anniversary of the first lectureship in sociology at an Irish university.

He welcomed the university’s setting up of a new network to study power in politics and society, its commitment to play a key role in the development of ideas and the importance of imagination in building alternatives for a better society.

“You can’t walk away from the State. If you think in Irish history of how long it took us to get to the kind of democratic accountability of a limited kind that is provided through electoral politics . . . ” he said. “Admittedly there are faults, there are limits within the parliamentary system, but it is an achievement of social movements.”

The keynote speech on the new network was delivered by Prof Peadar Kirby of the University of Limerick. He spoke about the development of social movements and civil society in Latin America and how they have underpinned recent political change there.

One aspect of the crisis of ideas in Ireland, he said, is the narrow range of experience drawn on. Ireland has many features in common with Latin America and can learn from their experiments in social and political change as this society also struggles to think and act its way beyond the intellectual and political world of neoliberalism.

Rooting a new politics in civil society is central, even if strains and tensions arise between social movements and parties that attain power, as recently in Brazil and Bolivia.

There is a clear elective affinity between Higgins and Kirby on these issues. Kirby’s book co-authored with Mary P Murphy of NUI Maynooth, Towards a Second Republic, Irish Politics after the Celtic Tiger (Pluto 2011), brings recent Irish social, economic and political research to bear on the subject in a comparative way that illuminates and amplifies the major points Higgins is making.

The book argues that “the realm of ideas has for the first time in a century become a lively battleground” in Ireland. We are witnessing a break-up of the close nexus between the ideas, interests and institutions that “so successfully and for such a long time underpinned Irish capitalism and maintained a neoliberal hegemony”.

They use a framework of political change developed by the British political scientist Colin Hay to argue that at such critical junctures of crisis the interaction of ideas, interests and institutions determines the pace and direction of change from one social paradigm to another. New ideas must be connected with real social interests to realise change; but it can only be enduring with institutions that reshape social power.

Their book carefully documents the evidence for each of these in an Ireland, North and South, where interests in the status quo are shifting dramatically.

Three visions of change and political reform are competing, they say. A still-dominant but weakened neoliberal model would reinforce existing approaches without achieving the strong principles of equality and a more robust public realm needed to create a second Irish republic.

An emergent developmental social democratic one brings together many movements for reform and comes closer to that objective.

An ecological or ethical socialist model is their preferred (if for now least likely) option, since it most adequately addresses two fundamental challenges facing humanity: that continuous capitalist growth is fast reaching the limits of finite resources, especially oil; and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for a habitable planet.

Throughout this fine book another Higgins theme is echoed: instead of laying the foundations for a strong civic republicanism, republicanism in Ireland has been obsessed by its constitutional form, while paying too little attention to its social substance.