"What do you do with your revolution once you've got it?" inquires the voice of Peter Lennon in the opening scenes of his iconic 1960s documentary Rocky Road to Dublin, made about half a century ago and half a century after the Easter Rising. He was exploring a question that the leaders in the early days of the independent Irish state had to ask themselves when the idealism of the revolutionary period gave way to a partial independence and when the dream of the "executed poets and socialists" gave way to a less inspiring new establishment. Instead, the documentary suggested, what was delivered was an insular nationalism, the rule of an uncultivated, repressive church, deep inequalities and a general culture of cowardice and conformism under which the country was stifled for several generations.
In the aftermath of two landmark political moments in the liberalisation of Ireland – the same-sex marriage referendum and the referendum to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion – shouldn’t we now ask the same question? Today however it should not be asked of the nationalist revolution to which Lennon was referring but the triumphant liberalising cultural one for which Lennon’s documentary made its most effective case.
These twin victories have been interpreted by most commentators as heralding Ireland’s late arrival to modernity. Fintan O’Toole concluded that “Ireland’s long 19th century is finally over” observing that certain long-lasting trends now coming to an end had anchored Ireland stubbornly in the Victorian era throughout the 20th century. This liberalisation marked the death of “Anglophobic nationalism”, he argued, and 19th-century Irish Catholicism with its Victorian approach of providing charity to the deserving poor in lieu of a modern secular welfare state, while the idea of a monolithic “people” has now been replaced by a pluralist idea of multiple identities in a “shared space”.
Freedom vs equality
Our national literary canon, from Edna O’Brien to James Joyce, tells the story of this desire to break free from the repressive post-independence Catholic nationalist regime and most of our establishment today, in the media, in academia and in cultural institutions broadly, were shaped by this struggle. To many in the ‘68 generation, like Lennon, cultural liberalisation and the struggle for equality went hand in hand. The long struggle for abortion rights in Ireland, which has now become a piece of liberal common sense across the western world, was fought for for decades by the socialist and radical left. Today however the presumed link between the two projects of Lennon’s 1960s left, the achievement of liberal freedoms and economic equality, can no longer be considered axiomatic.
The presumed link between the achievement of liberal freedoms and economic equality can no longer be considered axiomatic
On the contrary, if we are “catching up” with the rest of the West, Catholic paternalism will not be replaced with the post-war secular European social democracy, which has been under attack for a generation. Instead the ruling economic, cultural and political order will be one of unlimited freedom of choice for the individual mixed with greater economic inequality, indebtedness and declining living standards.
Today the most rapacious global corporate giants love nothing more than to celebrate female empowerment, gay pride, individual self-expression and freedom from the shackles of the past. This past International Women’s Day, once a Soviet Union holiday, every global corporation was desperate to be publicly associated with the cause of feminism. McDonald’s turned their golden M upside down to be a W. Porsche blacked out letters to read SHE. Matel released special feminist barbies including a Frida Kahlo Barbie. Twitter released an astroturfed hashtag campaign with a spoken word feminist poetry video. And the list goes on.
There could hardly have been a better symbol of the contradictions of contemporary liberal egalitarianism than at this year’s gay pride celebrations in Ireland during which ATMs were transformed into “GayTMs” with rainbow colours and kitsch designs framing the dreary machines, so often the bringers of bad news. A country whose economy was entirely restructured to facilitate the upward transfer of vast public wealth to bail out elite gambling debts has seamlessly transitioned to a country in which banks preach egalitarianism to the public. In recent years at gay pride, there have been so many floats dedicated to tech multinationals one could easily forget that it had ever been anything other than a North Korean-style ideological parade for the glorification of big tech. The Yes Equality campaign itself was backed by major corporations like Google, Ebay and Twitter.
Good for business
“Failure to support civil marriage equality may do untold damage to Ireland’s international reputation,” warned the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) in the lead-up to the marriage referendum. Enda Kenny added “Civil marriage equality will further promote Ireland as a leading place to work and do business.” Twitter Ireland vice-president Stephen McIntyre advised a “Yes vote in referendum would be good for Twitter and for Ireland”. Richard Bruton said at the time that a Yes vote would be a wise choice because it would be “helpful for businesses to grow”. He went on, “It would be good for Ireland. We are now a very vibrant, multicultural society, we are generous, we support equality.” Well, let’s examine for a moment our national commitment to “equality”.
The aptly named study The Missing Profits of Nations found Ireland to be effectively the world's largest tax haven, enabling global corporations to avoid any public distribution of wealth. The research estimates that multinationals moved €90 billion in corporate profits through Ireland in 2015 and estimates that this practise of profit shifting costs tax authorities globally about €170 billion. To get a sense of the historical trajectory of the bigger project we are racing to catch up with, between 1985 and 2018 the global average statutory corporate tax rate fell by more than half.
A report from this year’s World Economic Forum described Ireland as having “high income inequality and soaring wealth inequality”. Our prolonged housing crisis which sees Dubliners spending over half of their takehome pay on rent, has created a predicted 40-year timeframe for the provision of public housing based on the current waiting list and a young generation locked out of buying a home. Not to worry, the liberal vision of Silicon Valley already has an answer – “digital nomadism” – a work lifestyle for citizens of the world that enables an individual to work anywhere, always moving and transient.
The corporations eager to associate themselves with liberal egalitarian causes in Ireland and elsewhere include for example Apple, who were found to be paying 0.02 per cent tax thanks to Ireland’s liberal regime and whose core technologies come from public investment in research. Amazon, whose name was spelled out in the colours of the rainbow at this year’s gay pride in Dublin, is owned by the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, with a personal net worth of $108 billion. Amazon has suppressed efforts to unionise its workers internationally but its low-wage, high-profit model and infamously poor working conditions caused its European workers to go on strike recently.
Amazon, whose name was spelled out in the colours of the rainbow at this year's gay pride in Dublin, is owned by the richest person in the world
In our limited and shrinking national public discourse, closely monitored for deviant thought by a culture of militant conformism on the very social media platforms that champion this new vision of progress, we slavishly mimic US liberalism. But just as Ireland is busy collectively retweeting itself for enthusiastically coming into line with long-standing progressive norms elsewhere in Europe, many others across the developed world are beginning to question liberal premises. In his unsparing criticism of the plutocratic liberalism represented by Hillary Clinton, Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek declared, "this vision is coming to an end". In the US the public conversation is grappling with the idea of the total decline of liberalism itself with books like conservative critic Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed. As left-leaning commentators like Thomas Frank and economist Mark Blythe have argued, the election of Donald Trump in the US that stoked anti-immigrant sentiment was also a reaction against the ravages of economic globalisation. Just as the rest of the West is beginning to try to think its way through liberalism's inability to deliver real material equality and imagine a way forward, Ireland is hoping to become its most credulous enthusiast.
One of the most striking voices in A Rocky Road to Dublin is that of Sean Ó Faoláin who wanted in his own time to break free of "the Little Irelander". Smoking a pipe sitting in a garden chair he eloquently opines, "'32 just like '22 simply spawned a society utterly alien to the ideas of republicanism and none of us could be satisfied with it . . . A society in which there are blatant inequalities and in which the whole spirit of '16 has been lost . . . Had they seen the kind of Ireland that would come out of their sacrifice they would have felt only that their efforts had been betrayed and that their sacrifice had been in vain."
Perhaps today we should adopt some of Lennon and Ó Faoláin’s healthy scepticism of the ruling ideology of their time by first recognising what ours is. Whatever remains of the old Catholic nationalist regime will soon be gone completely but our intellectual conformism and deference to the one that has replaced it remains. Ireland now enters a phase in which the restrictions and social taboos of our parents and grandparents generation have been lifted but access to the basic material necessities of life such as housing and stable employment will likely decline.
The “shared space” that represents our having transcended the bad old days of nationalism is also perfectly conducive to our new role as obedient colonial subjects to be ruled from Silicon Valley rather than Westminster. The guiding force behind our economic inequality is no longer parish-pump parochialism, the church or nationalism but a system based on a globalised, financialised and speculative economic order.
The restrictions and social taboos have been lifted but access to the basic material necessities of life such as housing and stable employment will likely decline
For those who want neither a return to the past offered by the right or the liberal individualism offered by the permitted American model of the left, a feat of the imagination will be required to offer an alternative vision. Ireland could instead, for example, draw from our own unique radical traditions to fight for the rights of those who do not own property. Instead of lazily adopting the liberal cosmopolitanism of Silicon Valley, we could look out to the great cultures of the world for inspiration, to those elements that have withstood the marketisation and Americanisation of everything. We could use the best of what technological advancement could offer – greater leisure time and less work would be a good start. But the first step to understanding, before we can have any hope of changing, our current predicament will be acknowledging that the long 19th century is indeed over but that what is replacing it is not an egalitarian vision but the failing, globalised American vision of progressive individualism in culture and economics – the illusion of choice and freedom in a time of greater alienation, atomisation and diminishing expectations for the many and unlimited enrichment for the few.
Angela Nagle is the author of Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right