Monday, 14 March 2011

The dynamics of class, space and Luke 'Ming' Flanagan

I should explain. This post started as a response to some points raised over on the fascinating Little Review on how and why what are broadly defined as 'progressive' politics seem to find a more welcoming home in cities than they do in rural areas. However, by the time I began researching Luke Flanagan's election literature I realised that the post was going to be too long and off-topic for a comment box and required a post of it's own.

The phrase 'progressive politics' includes a wide range of issues. In terms of social liberalism, i.e, why attitudes towards choice, LGBT rights etc. find more support in cities, the answer is obvious. Namely, that freed from traditional family environments ideas like these can find more support where such bonds are loosened. Very few LGBT people who move from the countryside to the city find that their sexuality is received with a warmer reception in the former. However, what interests me more is why class politics, rather than broadly progressive politics, is much stronger in cities than it is in the countryside. Why is this? After all class exists in Castlerea as much as it does in Ballyfermot, yet class politics is clearly a much more powerful force in Dublin than it is in rural Ireland, where clientism, personality politics etc. remain surprisingly strong forces even now.

This brings me to something I've been thinking about a lot lately, which is the geography and the landscape of class and the connections between these dynamics and politics more generally. There's an excellent term I came across recently, that is used frequently by geographers but one that, as a historian, I wasn't familiar with. The term is 'intensity', or intensification. What this refers to is how different trends, experiences and social relations are inflated and intensified within a city. Essentially, the same social relations that exist within society generally become intensified when they are experienced within the concentrated social space of the city. The importance of this is recognised among urban geographers generally, but it's also something that Marx was well aware of when he wrote:
The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. (
It's important to remember of course that what the term 'idiocy' is a poor translation. In the original German, the term means 'narrow-view' or 'narrow-mindedness' rather than stupidity. Essentially, it means that a rural peasant cannot see national and international political and social forces at work and respond to them in the same way that a worker in a big urban area can. So, Marx, right back in 1848, was aware of how importance space was to class and class consciousness. How does this work in modern Ireland?

Let's take two individual workers: Jenny and Mary.

Jenny lives in the countryside in a single detached bungalow. Her nearest neighbours live a quarter of a mile down the road. While one of her neighbours is a great deal better off than she is, this social difference is not so clear. For one thing houses in the countryside are bigger than those in cities for reasons of space, so the difference in opulence between their two dwellings are not immediately obvious. Jenny's neighbour more than likely went to the same school as she did. While in Dublin or Galway her neighbour would have been sent to an exclusive fee-paying school like Blackrock College or the King's Hospital, those same opportunities don't exist this far out in the countryside and driving 50 miles to the nearest private school is not a feasible option. Because of this, Jenny and her neighbour are more than likely part of the same social circle. Anyway, Jenny drives to her workplace, a small agricultural supply centre with 12 other staff. Their relationship with their boss is cordial given the size of the workforce and, if she is unionised, major industrial issues only occasionally arise. This is how Jenny experiences the world on a day to day basis.

Mary has a very different experience.

Mary lives on a large working-class estate of over a hundred houses in North Dublin. Her neighbours generally share the same social background, social circle and, while there are differences in income, these are not major and don't reflect in the type of houses they live in. When Mary leaves for work she passes by streets of opulent wealthy houses. These houses are often surrounded by high walls and gates and she knows from experience that the provision of services tends to favour this area over her own. The contrast between this area and her own are staggering despite the fact that they are less than 2 miles apart. Mary reaches her workplace, an office building employing around 200 people. Mary is friendly with many of the staff. Her boss is a distant, authoritarian figure who may live in one of those big houses we mentioned earlier while the actual owners of the multinational that employ them may never have even set foot in the building. This is how Mary experiences the world on a day to day basis.

Obviously those two example are massively simplified generalisations and neither are going to relate exactly to any particular person. However, what we can draw from them is this: Even though Jenny and Mary exist in the same class relationship, they experience that same relationship in very different ways and a big part of this is to do with the dynamics of class and space

What do I mean by class? There are many different frameworks for understanding class, from the one favoured by the government - occupational class as recorded on census returns - to the more outlandish concepts favoured by postmodernist social scientists. In my view, the best framework for viewing class relations is that of Marxism. The Marxist view is that class is based on the power relationships that exist at the heart of capitalist society. At the centre of these power relationships are the means of production: Capital, machinery, assets etc. which are owned by the capitalist class. Since workers do not posess these things, or indeed, aside from a house or a car, very little private property, they can only make a living by selling their labour power to the capitalists, who own the other things necessary to produce goods and services. As such class is not defined by wealth, though obviously massive differences in wealth and income are a by-product of capitalism, but by economic power. Simply put, Class:
stands for those broad aggregates of people which can be classified together by an objective criterion - because they stand in a similar relationship to the means of production - and more especially the groupings of exploiters and exploited which, for purely economic reasons, are found in all human societies beyond the primitive communal and, as Marx would argue, until the triumph of proletarian revolution. (Eric Hobsbawm, 'Class Consciousness in History' in Istvan Meszaros, Aspects of History and Class Consciousness, pp.5-6)
There are multiple reasons why I feel this is the best framework, which I'll probably come back to again, but for the moment all you need to know is that this is the framework I am using when I talk about class.

So basically, class happens in the workplace, but this is not necessarily where most people experience class most profoundly. This was particularly the case during the 1990s and early 2000s when the level of class struggle in the workplace was historically low, the role of shop stewards was diminished and social partnership managed to contain the class tensions that did exist. But people still encountered class, just in different ways. People saw how the health service reflected class divisions in ensuring those with good insurance would get the same operations that public patients had to wait months for, through anti-water charges campaigns and a multitude of other ways. Where space and geography enter into this is the fact that geography is central to people's mental landscape. It seems natural, but when you think about it, very bizarre just how strong ideas like 'northside' and 'southside' in Cork and Dublin actually are. Why should a river define your concept of place so profoundly? Yet, these mental geographies are deeply powerful on a fundamental level. Class too influences this mental landscape. One of the most powerful expressions of class difference I ever experienced was when walking from Lover's Walk in Cork to the North Ring Road. The walk is only ten or fifteen minutes long, but in that brief stroll you go from a centre of disgustingly opulent wealth to some of the poorest, most neglected areas of the city. Coming from outside the city, I found this absolutely amazing, but for people living in either of those areas, the existence of class, inscribed onto the city landscape itself, is both clear and profound.

So, what has all this got to do with Luke Flanagan?

Luke Flanagan is part of a long line of populist non-ideological political figures in Irish politics. This lineage includes people like Jackie Healy Rae, Seán Dublin Bay Loftus, Mattie McGrath and various others. I should stress that I use this definition broadly and it would be highly unfair to compare Ming with Jackie Healy Rae for obvious reasons. Ming is undoubtedly a lot more intelligent and tuned in than Healy Rae or his children. Similarly these figures are not isolated to rural areas or indeed to independents. Noel O'Flynn in Cork is (was) an excellent, and repellant, example of this kind of politician. What links these figures is that while for the most part they are right-wing in practice, the way they present themselves and win votes is based on their status as 'ordinary guys' and as local men, as distinct from the usual politicians who are seen as remote and elitist by constituents. This localism can be seen in Flanagan's maiden speech to the Dáil: Note 'West of Ireland Man' and the 'people of Roscommon and Leitrim'.

What is the link between these guys and what we were talking about earlier? It has to do with how the intensification of clsss relations, and therefore class consciousness, impacts on politics. As we've seen, intensification and development of consciousness happens much more easily in a city or big town than a village. When the geography and landscape of class is not so obvious, for example in Kerry or Roscommon, people understand politics through a different lens. So for a man living in Castlerea, the idea that the problems he faces are not the result of the division of power between classes, does not necessarily come naturally. However, the idea that these problems are the result of a division between a marginal, rural, underdeveloped area and Dublin, the 'big smoke', the seat of power, wealth and industry, a division between the metropolitan centre and the rural periphery, seems more intuitive. Additionally, because of the marginality of his home and community, it is natural that he should feel powerless about affecting change on a national level. National politics 'happens' in the urban centre of power, so the appeal of localism increases. Jackie Healy Rae, it must be remembered, did actually fix the potholes, which is more good than any Fine Gaeler ever did for Kerry.

However, such politicians are a dying breed. The scale of the crisis has meant the awareness that there are conflicting social forces at work in society and that their interest are mutually antagonistic has become much more widespread in both country and city. It's also not true that left-wing ideas cannot find fertile ground in rural areas. During the Irish revolution most of the Soviets that sprang up in workplaces were in small towns and villages (Limerick excepted) while much of the social radicalism of the 1960s revolved around countryside issues like fishing rights, ground rents and land agitation. The Worker's Party won it's first TD in Mallow, not Dublin. This year's election also saw the success of Séamus Healy of the Workers Unemployed Action Group who have established a strong following in South Tipperary while Thomas Pringle, undoubtedly a man of the left, took a seat in Donegal. What TWAG show in my opinion, is just how important the role of an activist party is in fostering class consciousness.

So how can parties of the radical left imitate Healy's success in South Tipp? Linking local issues to national ones is crucial. A campaign to save a hospital can be diverted into localist channels by the likes of Mattie McGrath but a party that links this issue to the need for reforming the health service completely can cut across this sort of thing. Also, issues of margin and periphery, dismissed by some on the urban left, shouldn't be ignored. I was struck by this leaflet over on Irish election literature:

Well why shouldn't Mayo get an airport? If it provides jobs and services then why the hell not? This leaflet plays into a different but equally reactionary localism to that of Jackie Healy Rae or Mattie McGrath. Parts of Ireland that are dying due to a lack of infrastructure or development shouldn't be dismissed because they're outside the pale.

But I digress. The interesting thing about these populist TDs is that the way they present themselves, as the ordinary guy, representing the little fella has strong echoes of Fianna Fáil's populist message from the 1930s onwards, where they managed to contain the development of class politics through concessions to the working-class in terms of housing and social welfare combined with an ideology that appealed to workers, small farmers etc. but that still denied the centrality of class. It seems odd to describe FF as non-ideological, given their right-wing policies over the past few decades, but even an event as absurd as Bertie trying to describe himself as a socialist reflected Fianna Fáil's reluctance to openly embrace a right-wing identity. What's sure though is that the crisis and the collapse of Fianna Fáil has shaken the foundations of Irish politics to the core. Shane Ross, when interviewed on RTE after his election victory, congratulated Joe Higgins and explained that even at that point in the count (Saturday afternoon) there was an ideological dividing line being established in the Irish political system that hadn't previously existed. Healy Rae and Mattie McGrath may have clung to their seats but they seem increasingly like an anachronism as the lines of left and right are being drawn within the Irish political system.


  1. Great Post. Regarding The Eric Byrne Leaflet, The Dublin South Central by-Election was held on the same day as the European Elections. The main theme of Pat Rabbittes (the DL candidate) campaign material was that Dublin was getting a rough deal in terms of European funding as well as other items such as new jobs attracted by the IDA.

  2. Excellent post. I'm glad you escaped the idiocy of rural life in Lisgoold, otherwise we may have lost you to the likes of FF! Your observations are simple, yet very perceptive, and resonate with mine too in the smaller towns I have lived in (Clonakilty, Cashel). Carrigaline's class divisions are more marked however, larger population and closer to city allows for divisions to be more noticeable, to give but one example, in the choice of school. That Istvan Meszaros book looks interesting, must look into it.