The Irish Government and its allies are presenting a very coherent narrative about the COVID-19 crisis. But as John Molyneux argues, this narrative is constructed to restore the crumbling position of both Fine Gael and the wider establishment.
The Irish Government and their allies are presenting a very coherent narrative about the crisis and how they’re responding. At the heart of this narrative is the mantra that ‘We are all in this together!’ and that they – Varadkar, Harris and co. – are acting on behalf of us all. Varadkar’s original ‘address to the nation’ was well crafted by his top spin doctor, to create just this impression. And no sooner had he pronounced this theme than it was echoed on every side by his fellow politicians, establishment figures, and the media. ‘We are all in it together!’
This has two intentional effects. First, it boosts the popularity and the authority of the Government and its ‘leader’, who projects himself as the ‘leader of the nation’. Two months ago Leo Varadkar had just taken a drubbing in the election and there had been a major surge to the left. Now all that seems an age ago and he is riding high.
Second, it creates an atmosphere in which asking any question or making any effort to hold the government to account can be brushed aside. Or worse, they can be attacked as disloyal attempts to make political capital out of the crisis.
The second strand to Varadkar’s message is that the government is taking their lead from the scientists and experts. This is a bit rich coming from politicians who consistently failed to take any notice of the scientists on climate change, or even in proper pandemic preparedness when scientists raised the alarm in January. Nevertheless, this claim is repeated at every possible opportunity.
In particular, Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, has been built up to be some kind of national hero. This despite the fact that Holohan played a decidedly shabby role in cervical check cancer scandal, now conveniently forgotten, when he advised against any external review of the cancer screening programme – advice which Simon Harris then ignored.
The third strand of the official narrative has been to assign to the general public the role of dutifully doing as they are told. The mantra of ‘Wash your hands!’, ‘Social distancing’, and ‘Stay home’. Of course, these things are absolutely necessary, but it is also the case that this narrative diverts attention away from what the government is or isn’t doing, and on to the behaviour of ordinary people.
This is the same strategy used over climate change, when politicians focus on what we do as individuals and turn a blind eye on industry and agribusiness.
The focus on our individual behaviour allows the government to congratulate the majority of people on their good citizenship (obeying instructions), while castigating various disobedient minorities: teenagers in the parks, panic buyers, or blow-ins from Dublin holidaying in the West.
This shifts the focus away from the much more dangerous practices the government have been turning a blind eye to, such as continued work on construction sites, or lack of safety measures implemented in essential workplaces. The extreme example of this comes from London where, despite the social distancing lockdown, the Underground has continued to run, even as the death count of transit workers continues to rise. And fundamentally, it sets people against one another, always a benefit to the ruling class.
The lap dog media
The effectiveness of this narrative has depended on compliance from the media and that has been forthcoming in spades. RTÉ, fundamentally pro the system in ordinary times, in this crisis has been exceptionally subservient and uncritical, abandoning any serious attempt to hold ministers to account and marginalising critical voices even more than usual.
Was this compliance voluntary or coerced? Probably a mixture of both. Clearly very highly paid presenters such as Ryan Tubridy, Miriam O’Callaghan, Claire Byrne, Brendan O’Connor and Pat Kenny would be ready and willing to push the government line.
But doubtless a word to journalists from TV bosses, newspaper proprietors and their editors to the effect that ‘now is not the time for adversarial interviewing’ or ‘alarming the public’ would have been highly effective in securing compliance. The BBC’s John Humphreys, certainly not a leftist, has reported receiving such an instruction from his bosses. Clearly it will have been the same in Ireland. Career journalists, whether in broadcasting or the press, know which side their bread is buttered.
Experts for whom?
Also important in getting out their message is the role of a range of state officials and professional ‘experts’. These include senior Gardaí, heads of hospitals, many top academics and so on commentating and advising the government. These people are presented to us as politically neutral, but this is not so. It is not just that their incomes place them firmly in the upper middle classes, but that the career path of promotion to these top jobs screens out dissident voices who are not ‘safe pairs of hands’ from the point of view of the ruling class. And in many cases these people will be or will have been directly party political. The aforementioned Tony Holohan, for example, has a record in the past of ardent campaigning for Fianna Fáil.
In this COVID-19 crisis all these three groups – the top politicians, the media and the public officials and experts – have combined to promote a single establishment narrative as if there was complete consensus around it.
A Socialist Response
So, how should socialists and leftist respond?
First, we have to be clear in our own minds that this issue, for all that it is a matter of life and death for many millions of people round the world, is not above or beyond politics. There is no issue, not war, not austerity, not national independence, not world poverty, not climate change, that is above politics. All of these issues are profoundly affected by public policy, and therefore must be subject to political debate.
The class divide, the conflict of class interests between capitalists and workers, bourgeois and proletarians as Marx put it, runs through every issue and cannot be suspended or put on hold in the national interest. There is no common national interest between our class and the bosses. The narrative presented by Varadkar and his allies is consciously constructed to restore the crumbling position of both Fine Gael and the wider establishment and to roll back the demand for change so evident at the last election.
Our job therefore is to puncture the consensus and cut through their narrative.
First, we have to demonstrate through concrete practical examples that the Government is not acting in the interests of the majority but rather is continuing to protect the interests of profit and its friends in business.
We have to show that the failure to shut down quickly enough stemmed from concern for the economy – profits for the bosses. The failure to procure sufficient ventilators, PPEs and masks, leaving our health workers exposed and vulnerable, comes from their refusal to buck their beloved market mechanisms. The crisis in homeless hostels and hubs and the direct provision centres flows from their unwillingness to interfere with the ‘rights’ of private property by commandeering vacant properties, hotel rooms and AirBnB apartments, even when lives are at stake.
Second, we should advance practical socialist policies which take as their starting point the immediate crisis and the need to save lives, but which also point to the fact that we need a society based on human need not the pursuit of profit.
Policies like the immediate requisition of private beds and hospital facilities to meet demand; the establishment of a single one-tier health service across the 32 counties and the general need for an all–Ireland approach; the nationalization of firms like Metronic and Randox to ensure the production of necessary health equipment; the provision of a living wage for all workers laid off or made unemployed and the implementation of free bus transport so that bus drivers don’t have to interact with passengers to collect fares.
Third, the major recession coming in the wake of this pandemic is not a natural or inevitable consequence of the health crisis. Rather, it is the result of the impact of the crisis on a for-profit economy which cannot tolerate any interruption in the flow of profits and endless economic growth without plunging into meltdown. We have to insist that rather than spending untold billions to bail out the banks that this time we bail out ordinary people.
Finally, we need to support and show solidarity with every sign of resistance from below. The Thursday night clapping is very important in this regard not only to show gratitude to all our health workers and frontline staff but as step to getting people in our communities to take action in solidarity with each other. From this first step we can build other forms of community action and protest, including protests by health workers themselves over lack of equipment and proper accommodation.
Socialists and leftists must coordinate our efforts, just as the Establishment coordinate theirs, so that we can help prevent the right-wing establishment emerging from this disaster with their power to deceive, exploit and oppress working people enhanced. And, so that we can build the people power necessary to force the government to rebuild out of this crisis a society that puts people’s health, wellbeing and livelihoods before the profiteers and speculators that hold Ireland to ransom.