Posted tagged ‘Michael D. Higgins’

A vision of Ireland at the crossroads?

November 13, 2012

I have now lived outside Ireland for the best part of two years. However, I am a frequent visitor and I keep up with things as best I can; and as I do so I am becoming increasingly intrigued by the direction of the national conversation. There appears to be a near consensus, in some circles at least, that the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years were all one big mistake and that the country should never have left the spirit of a previous era; though I am not always sure which previous era might be held up as a model.

Among those leading the discussion is Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins. The President has been forthright in rejecting the assumptions of the Celtic Tiger era, and in particular in rejecting the primacy of markets in economic affairs. His analysis has been interesting. In his lecture at the London School of Economics in February this year the President suggested that Ireland’s recent economic boom was a failure because ‘leaders and people had all but lost connection with the cultural and political elements of national revival’. What they pursued was the intellectual brainchild, he felt, of writers such as Friedrich von Hayek who promoted a ‘single hegemonic version of the connection between markets, economic policy, and life itself.’ This led to ‘extreme individualism’ supported by ‘unregulated markets’. A little later, in April of this year, the President spoke about ‘the folly of overweening material ambition’.

Pursuing this particular reference, I was a little struck that nobody appeared to have picked up the similarity of tone to that of a previous Irish President. In 1943 Eamon de Valera (admittedly when he was Taoiseach and therefore before he became President), made a speech mainly remembered for a reference he did not actually make (his alleged but never expressed yearning for ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’). However he did say:

‘The Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul.’

At a recent gathering of psychologists Ireland’s current dissatisfaction with itself was attributed by one speaker to a ‘narcissistic system’ based on its colonial past, and which caused people to have a negative view of themselves and of the nation. What she was referring to was the country’s sense of flawed nationhood as it accepted responsibility for what went wrong in the national finances, including the problems caused by reckless banking behaviour. The implication was that this acceptance of responsibility, by political leaders at least, was part of a distorted self-analysis and an obsessive desire to please others (the ‘others’ here being the IMF and the European Union).

What picture of an ideal Ireland can we discern from all this? An insecure country that wants to reject its recent past? A country that is keen to renounce material possessions and return to a rural frugality? A country that thinks that what happened to the Irish economy was part of some aberration in the national destiny?

No country and no society can turn the clock back. For those who may remember, say, the 1950s and 1960s, and for those who have just read about those decades, there should be some hesitation before concluding that those were better days. Does Ireland want women back into the home, could it accept now the lack of social and physical mobility, or large-scale emigration? Not to mention child abuse.

Nobody can doubt that the recent past was not all that it should have been. But the way forward is forward. The last two decades brought Ireland a much greater liberal acceptance of human rights, greater access to scientific and technological progress, much better national infrastructure, a better awareness of the potential for global communication and interaction. There was much more good than there was bad. Those who believe that Ireland needs to reject all of its recent history should, really, think again.

Returning universities to a less complex age?

April 5, 2012

The following extract from a speech delivered by Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins, to the annual congress of the Union of Students in Ireland caught my eye:

‘What kind of a scholastic institution or community of learning is it when you hire a very important person who can bring investment to a university but doesn’t want to teach the main body of undergraduate students?’

There are all sorts of things wrapped up in the President’s question. First, there is an assumption that generating income for a university is not particularly significant. Secondly, there is at least by implication the suggestion that research detracts from a university’s teaching mission. Thirdly, there is a criticism of staff who do not teach, and assumption that there are many of these.

The President’s picture of contemporary Irish universities does not in reality stand up to much scrutiny. Researchers play a vital role in the life of a university. They develop scholarship and knowledge, and sustain a creative and innovative society. Mostly they do teach, often enthusiastically. The quality and standing of Irish universities has improved dramatically since they embarked upon a high value research agenda, from the late 1990s onwards. Students have also significantly benefited from this.

Of course it is good that President Higgins is stimulating debate and questioning value systems. But it would be better if this did not involve a caricature of the country’s universities, or a misunderstanding of what they do and of the contribution they make. The President is suggesting that there may have been a better, purer age of higher education. In truth there are a good many things that could be done better, and there are some developments over recent years that could usefully be questioned. High value research is not one of them.

Politics and markets and public intellectuals

February 22, 2012

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, this week used the occasion of a speech delivered at the London School of Economics to develop a little more his theme of a society that has lost its way, and of an academic profession that should accept the responsibility of restoring it to intellectual health. His starting point, which he had already given an outing a few weeks ago when conferred with an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland, is that a political orthodoxy of unfettered markets took hold of public discourse and policy and led to the recent economic disaster. He attributes this movement largely to to the late Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, whom he credits with the view that markets are necessarily rational and that they should be ‘unregulated’. The President continued:

‘We have, as a consequence, been living through a period of extreme individualism, a period where the concept of society itself has been questioned. The public space in so many countries of the EU has been commodified, and it is as calculating rational choice maximizers, rather than as citizens, we have been invited to view our neighbours. That is the mark of our times, the hegemonic version, by which it is suggested, we live our lives together. Our existence is assumed to be, is defined as, competing individual actors at times neurotic in our insatiable anxieties for consumption…’

In fact what President Higgins attributes to Hayek could be questioned. In his seminal book The Road to Serfdom, Hayek confirmed his preference for as little state regulation as possible, but also stated that where markets are distorted or abused state intervention is necessary. And in Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek argued not that markets are rational, but that people and organisations experiencing fully competitive markets – i.e. with proper levels of competition – will tend to behave rationally. Hayek was indeed the high priest of neoliberalism, but his views were a little more nuanced than suggested in the President’s speech.

As for society, it was indeed questioned, in particular in the famous (or infamous) statement by Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing; but whether it was forced to give way to a set of purely commodified relationships is much more questionable.

As I have mentioned before, the desire on the part of President Higgins to stimulate debate and encourage academic leadership in this debate is wholly to be welcomed. The issues he raises and the questions he asks are good ones. He is justified in encouraging debate about the nature and purpose of society. And he is right to highlight the role of the public intellectual, and thus of the academic community.

I am less persuaded by his own analysis of these issues. His thesis, that we are all the victims of a fashion for unregulated markets, is perhaps questionable. As neoliberal policies took root from the 1980s, markets were opened up but were then subjected to significant regulation; indeed the levels of regulation increased substantially after the Enron and WorldCom disasters of the last decade. Whether this regulation was appropriate or good is another matter; there is actually one school of thought that there was too much of it, meaning that some of it had become too complex to be effective. Another view is that there was adequate regulation, but that it was inadequately enforced.

All of this is open to debate, and academics should indeed seek to lead it. But that debate will be better if its basic assumptions are not too simplistic. President Higgins has a significant opportunity to prompt a national and even international dialogue. I would hope that his own contribution takes account of the considerable complexities that got us where we are, and from where we want to escape.

In search of the lost paradigm

January 26, 2012

For an academic community, there is always something uplifting about the arrival of one of its respected members in high office. In Ireland this happened last year with the election of Michael D. Higgins as President. As those who know President Higgins will testify, despite his long and distinguished political career he does not hide his academic credentials – nor should he, for they are genuinely impressive. Yesterday provided the President with an opportunity to display them in an obvious setting, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland in a ceremony in Dublin Castle.

However, I am not really intending to describe or comment upon the ceremony. Rather, I was struck by the theme the President struck in his address to the convocation, which apart from some reminiscences of his life as an academic in Galway took him to a detailed and scholarly exploration of the role of the university in changing times. The speech (which can be found here) is worth reading in full, but let me focus on what was really his major point. He suggested that public and economic policy was hijacked over recent decades by a particular school of thought, and that this exercise in intellectual aggression produced both an impotence of academic discourse and, in the ‘real’ world of people’s lives, great hardship and deprivation and, ultimately, economic collapse. Following the same trail of thought the President suggests that an invigorated and independent academic community willing to ‘recover the unities of scholarship, to strike out for originality, seek as comparative standards the great moments of intellectual work from around the world’ will be able to make its powerful contribution in the recovery of a more humane political and economic settlement.

There is much in his speech worth supporting, and in particular it must be right to encourage the academy to take its place in leading genuinely independent and scholarly debate that actually addresses the issues in the life of the community. But there is also room for some notes of caution. First, I am not at all sure about the President’s focus on what he describes as a ‘new and largely uncontested paradigm’, which he attacks strongly but never quite explains. He references Friedrich von Hayek and the idea of ‘unrestrained market dominance’, and the notion of the total ‘rationality’ of markets. I always used to forbid students from using the (more often than not misused) word ‘paradigm’, which too often gets conscripted to a weak argument, but leaving that aside, there is in all this just a little bit of an unrestrained caricature which sits on top of much more complex realities. Nobody that I am familiar with has ever advocated ‘unrestrained’ markets, nor was the period that ended with the banking disasters characterised by lack of regulation as is sometimes suggested; it was just regulation that (as is so often the case) didn’t work properly; but there was actually lots of it.

We are all vulnerable to the seductive but damaging charms of nostalgia, and often we are tempted to believe that in another age they did things better and got it right. Then we forget that so much has changed. The period after World War 2 which saw the strong development of the welfare state and what the Germans called the ‘social market economy’ was one in which national markets could be easily protected, and therefore social regulations could be sustained without damaging employment, because technology, and information technology in particular, had not developed to the extent we know it now. We cannot return to that time or its basic methods. A global economy is here to stay, at least for all those who don’t want to accept spectacular poverty as a price for not having globalisation.

But then again, while I wish he had left out the search for an ideological rogues’ gallery who can be fingered as the culprits for all recent woes, President Higgins is still right in his broad message. We are where we are, and we must succeed in the economic world we are in; technological innovation is not our enemy – but…: we must engage in a search for a way in which this world can be made into a place that values and enhances the life of the community, and in which academics pursue themes of critical scholarly inquiry that has the capacity to change lives. This is not a return to some lost golden age. It is the search for a new one.

Letting the voters vote is a good idea

July 22, 2011

Depending on what country you live in, you may or may not be aware of what is going on in the presidential election campaign in Ireland. The actual election will take place later this year, and on the ballot paper will be all those candidates who have managed to get nominated. However, nomination is not a formality. A candidate will need to secure support either from a number of local authorities or from a number of the members of the Irish parliament (the Oireachtas).

A number of candidates are now lining up, and it is going to be a hotly contested race. All opinion polls confirm that there is a clear frontrunner: independent Senator David Norris. But whether the voters will actually be able to vote for him remains uncertain, as he has not so far secured the necessary nominations. In addition, his task is made more difficult by the fact that his rivals include Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael and Michael D. Higgins of Labour, and these two parties dominate the councils and the ranks of parliamentarians from whom Norris will need to secure the nomination. Indeed Fine Gael appears to have instructed its members not to support nominations for anyone other than their candidate.

So right now it looks possible that David Norris, the apparent choice of the people, will not be able secure a nomination. If this happens it will be seen by many as an outrage, and will in addition fundamentally undermine the mandate that the then winning candidate will claim to have secured. It is in fact in nobody’s interests that this should happen.

Some politicians have agreed to nominate David Norris even though they will actually be voting for someone else, and that is an entirely honourable position. Others, including members of Fine Gael, should follow this lead so as not to bring the whole election into disrepute.

Whether David Norris should be elected is another matter, or rather is a matter for the people. That he should be a candidate seems to me to be beyond any reasonable doubt.


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