Every Friday, Cathal McCarthy writes a hard-hitting essay on the state of Ireland
AN interesting question is whether we ‘do’ public intellectuals in Ireland? I’m not sure we do — certainly not in the way they ‘do’ public intellectuals in, say, France or Germany.
Both of these countries have huge intellectual and philosophic legacies and their publics see nothing wrong with attempting to go past the superficial and into the more profound. Ireland is different; we, in common with the British, distrust abstractions that are the stuff of public intellectual debates.
I think that, on the whole, we’re right to distrust abstractions. Certainly, in a social and political context they’re more hindrance than help.
But do we have a public intellectual in Ireland? We veered close a couple of times; Cork’s own John A. Murphy has what it takes and might have been prepared to fill the role of someone who knows his Aristotle from his elbow but can yet ‘gear down’ enough to convey his brilliance to the likes of you and me.
But Professor Murphy is retired now — although he is still involved with some aspects of Ireland’s academic life.
The problem is that the quietening of our one undisputed serious thinker leaves a vacuum. And my fear is that the vacuum will be filled by someone like Fintan O’Toole.
Lst Tuesday, Fintan wrote one of those — drum roll, maestro, please — ‘seminal’ pieces in which a perfect confection of indignation, irritating sanctimony and heroic defiance of the facts are combined to form one of those brilliant declamatory mud pies he so loves to throw about.
He complained that the Labour Party is “actively increasing inequality in Irish society” and he averred that “if Labour is not about equality, it is about nothing at all”.
God help us.
Let’s have a go at dissecting Fintan’s thoughts.
We are to understand from his comments that if Labour was serious about decreasing inequality, they would actively implement the kind of redistributive economic policies that they historically espouse and for which Mr O’Toole has long acted as principal cheerleader.
The key word there, of course, is ‘redistributive’ which, as I understand it, implies some surplus resources to be distributed. There is no such surplus. Nor is there likely to be any such surplus for a very long time.
We will do Mr O’Toole the justice of not allocating him to the airhead chorus that pretends that there are deficit-closing crocks of gold hidden in the trees and crags of Dalkey and Rochestown only waiting to be uncovered and redistributed.
That leaves only two options: a systematic stripping-out through increased taxation and charges of the state’s already fraying and by-their-fingernails-solvent middle class, or a hopeless and utterly pointless effort to borrow abroad monies that will be fired into the ravening maw of ‘decreasing inequality’.
Nobody will lend us money to do that and if they will, it will be lent at the kind of insane interest rates that guarantee that in five years time, or less, our state — which Mr O’Toole rightly considers to be the only agent capable of addressing inequality — will have even less capacity to act than it does now.
Not too many people will differ with that analysis. The very capacity of the state to do anything at all in the near future is what is at stake and the Labour party — as the most ‘statist’ party in our political system — is
carefully doing what it can to preserve that capacity so that when, or if, an opportunity to redistribute a surplus ever presents itself again, they can, at that stage, act.
This seems to me a legitimate political course: Labour can die heroically or live strategically. That they have chosen the latter is largely immaterial to me and that there are certain selfish party political motives at play is obvious.
But to rubbish it as some abject class betrayal is patently wrong and to present the Labour position as, somehow, choosing not to ‘decrease inequality’ without reference to the real context is not fair and actually diminishes the credibility we can attach to the idea of decreasing inequality at all.
If Mr O’Toole is happy to decouple the concept of inequality from its real, here-and- now, political and economic context and instead flourish it as some kind of scholastic socialist club with which to ‘bate’ the Labour party, then he must understand why some struggle to accept the idea that it is desirable — or even possible — to decrease inequality at all. What meaning can inequality have decoupled thus? The thing is either amenable to political and economic reality or it is not; if it’s not then why are we even talking about it? Let’s talk about other ethereal abstractions instead, like angels, or Limbo, or Leitrim.
I Mr O’Toole really wants us to consider inequality as an abstraction that has an existence outside — and above — the real conditions by which it must be measured and countered, then I think that is a pose.
And I hope and believe that not the best thing that is emerging from this present catharsis is that Paddy’s not interested in posing any more.
Read Cathal McCarthy every Friday in the Cork Evening Echo