The Role of the Intelligentsia as Dissidents in the Modern Nation State – a view from Ireland
This essay is based on a paper given at the Clinton Institute for American Studies, University College, Dublin, in December 2005, and represents a purely personal point of view.
Aristotle defined as second nature those habits and customs which together make an identity, as distinct from the permanent attributes that go to make up human nature. Since the end of the cold war, globalization has taken off as a second human nature, even according to some theorists, the market mentality being intrinsic to the composition of the human being and capitalism being an essential feature of life on earth. This would no doubt upset Aristotle, but we do know, from our studies of other peoples and cultures, that some characteristics are more constant than others, and we have much to learn from each other. What is interpreted as temporary sometimes turns out to be a permanent, depending on your point of view.
It may be a good thing at this stage, after the Fall of the Wall, to have a look at the role of the intelligentsia, particularly as dissidents, from the positions of right and left, and to see how they have fared in the past, and how we will go forward, in a project of peace which yet acknowledges the diversity of the modern nation states, and to see particularly how Ireland fits into this remit.
The intelligentsia, traditionally, have transcended the boundaries and limitations of class, gender, and race, and in a stance of detachment, comment on and effect the power play and cultural policies of a nation – and so negotiate and reach the area of the desirable qualities which come to be defined as permanent aspects of human nature in a broader context.
Because the idea of nationality is first and foremost an emotional identification with a group who share language, social customs, but not always territory, it is by its very nature prone to warfare: as we have seen in the 20th century great wars were fought on the basis of nationality, fascism being the most emotive form of nationality, with its mystification of blood and brotherhood, which linked its symbols and paraphernalia to the methods of of modern communications. The progress is from the tribe, with its gods, to the nation state, with its heroes, to a wider arena. Therefore one of the roles of the dissident in the nation state is to be vigilant against emotional excess and over- identification with the nation, whilst promoting the welfare of the people not to go to extremes where hostilities are engendered. However because the nation state by definition shares an ideology with its members the dissident or intellectual must also watch out for the dangers of ideology, which are carried together like a capsule in the minds of the people. There are many well-recognized ways in which ideology works against the truth, where the group mind takes over to the detriment of honest self examination.
On the other hand, in the Western model of rationality and equality, there are specific problems, in that the rhetoric of equality cannot always find a match in an atmosphere of competition and self-aggrandizement that the nation state embraces and the market upholds at this point in history. Some political systems have tried to solve this problem – equality and power: the left socialist countries in their beginnings notoriously entered a duplicity of mind to keep these two balls in the air. What Noam Chomsky calls the bounds of the expressible had its historic moment in 1917 when the fabrication of necessary illusions for social management entered the 20th century. The Bolshevik revolution gave concrete expression to the Leninist conception of the radical intelligentsia as the vanguard of social progress exploiting popular struggles to gain state power and to impose the Red bureaucracy of Bakunin’s forebodings. This they proceeded to do, dismantling factory councils, Soviets, and other forms of popular organization so that the population could be effectively mobilized into a “labour army” under the control of supposedly far sighted leaders who would drive the whole society forward. We have seen in each of the great communist countries that this forceful rule of the intelligentsia resulted in totalitarianism and the banishment of consent. I am old enough to remember the dunce caps of China in the 1960s and 70s and how professors and academics had to walk the streets draped as fools to convince the masses of the omnipotent reign of Mao, who reached further into places even emperors couldn’t reach with the subjugation of the masses. So the failure of these communist revolutions has shown us there is the least tolerance for dissent in those countries which have espoused totalitarianism, the so-called dictatorship of the people, when in fact the new emperors and dictators killed unprecedented numbers and threw even vaster numbers into prison.
So we can see under the conditions of pure Marxism, when the proletariat were considered to be led by the intelligentsia, these intelligentsia became the conservative power at the heart of social control, banishing real dissidents to Siberia or the slave camps. Therefore it seems there has been a hiatus between the individual liberties enshrined by the state and the more fundamental values of a global view which have been held by the intelligentsia.
Has the rule of the people from the right fared any better? What is a state now when the people ARE the state, where the individual is held to be equal yet is vulnerable to enormous economic powers held by those who are richer and more adept and able – some are unable to access the media and leadership structures, others seem relatively powerless. Reagan and Thatcher tended to give new meanings to equality and liberty by superimposing additional rights, the right not only to own property absolutely but to make boundless wealth whatever the cost to the environment, in fact, during the Cold War the environment was regarded as a non-issue as both sides of the globe heaped up armaments; and laid waste the resources of the earth like an enormous party that the world was going to end and they were going to get as rich as possible on the proceeds before pulling the plug on it. At the European level there was a committee for the Environment in the European Parliament following the Jahn report in the ‘seventies. At national level, where were the intelligentsia during this crucial cold war period? Those at odds with the government were deprived, with few exceptions, through the power of the mass media, of having any foothold on public opinion since the media backed the consumer culture, save for a small number of literary, academic, and specialist journals and newspapers. There have been movements of the intelligentsia, such as the counter culture in the United States which have been largely absorbed as a sub culture, and which have been deprived of political nous by association, usually through the press of amorality, or as corrupted individuals who don’t even have the romantic allure they had in the 60s. Instead they are recycled as a superior form of garbage in the popular culture.
So in the western model, with the emphasis on individual liberty, it took no time at all before this became translated by ordinary people led by private company despots, into the unquestioned right to rule the earth more than any war lord of the medieval times. And the mass media backed them, there was hardly a colour supplement without its full complement of energy burning devices, cars being featured even as I speak (in 2005) without mention of the downsides of air pollution, carbon dioxide poisoning of the earth and global warming. During this time of economic expansion the mass media ruled and decided who was in and who was out. Since the enhancement of civil liberties and the incentives of endless wealth was the engine that drove the economic war between East and West, it would be rational to suppose, once the argument had been won by the West, that they could revert to better husbandry of resources in the light of the coming generations that had been saved by the avoidance of full scale confrontation and nuclear warfare. The intelligentsia could come back on stage, that generation of the 60s who had been demonized as lunatic protesters and lefties of the Vietnam war, and by draconian drug laws (and drug use, legislation and control remains a serious problem) could take their place in the body politic and dissent from the programme of endless profiteering and economic expansion. But that didn’t’ happen. Reaganism and Thatcherism, while they won the argument against communism, held little hope for the advancement of the human project and civilization because the primary focus was on a sort of preternatural greed, and that greed became normative in a media that was too lazy to react to the challenges at the end of the Cold War. The question of global warming was mooted, in fact, by Thatcher in the ‘eighties, but not addressed by society at large, and not taken up as environmentalists continued to be lampooned as tree huggers and ancient hippies. The BBC was notable in following its public service remit with excellent nature programmes by David Attenborough.
On the whole, however, instead of enabling dissent, the mass media colluded with the giant economic multinationals as they took the planet a day at a time, and in that day, to waste and consume as much as possible. The intelligentsia or those that thought ahead, used to being side-lined, were largely silenced, with the result of the notorious dumbing down culture that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the concomitant rise of gangsters and drug warlords.
The role of the intelligentsia had been to call attention to these democratic deficits in the real politik , but they remained marginal figures at the time. On the broader front, the silencing of dissent from the intelligentsia has through the media emphasis on consumerism continued right until very recently. The result is that dissent and dissidence have become extremist, in the face of a seductive and powerful advertising presence; and for these dissenters, a wholesale rejection of the Western model of the nation state has developed. The extremists among the intelligentsia are given conditions in which they thrive, particularly those who oppose the images of the commercial West, as they have embraced not just consent to dissent, but a hard edged political programme against those they have cast as the enemy. The Al Quaeda are a case in point.
We could ask if there anything about nation states where the intelligentsia still have a role to play as dissidents in a way that moves forward the democratic processes of society instead of creating a climate of fear and terror with the usual outcome of hyper security, or should I say hyper insecurity. The threat to democracy is very large, as with the enabling of communications such as the internet, a whole culture also has grown up which aims to steal from this demographic group; stealing – from common larceny with credit card numbers, to high powered stealing of identity – and the infiltration of society where bomb makers can go undetected until the latest suicide bomber makes the ultimate bid for what he or she calls freedom. They have seen freedom defined as licence, and have opted for a genuine freedom of the will, a freedom he or she will not live to enjoy.
They are helped by ideologues who posit an idealized state as distinct from the real nation states of our time, as put by some Islamist radicals:
“So all creation issuing as it does from one absolute, universal, and active Will, forms an all-embracing unity in which each individual part is in harmonious order with the remainder.”
It would be another day’s work to see how this idea of unity, a single will, can be squared with the separatist and isolated acts of terrorism, such as the suicide bomber. The ethics of nationalist Islam, with its education for extremists who do not want the delicate balance between a fundamentalist state and modern states, and who embark on a progamme of destruction which is aimed at the western democratic states, need to be examined and dialogued with even more than the need for security.
The huge modern nation states are thus at a threshold where everyday events like writing on the internet can yield clues to a hostile intelligentsia many miles away, allowing them access to the culture in order to destroy it. How can dialogue be made between these fundamentalists and the core values of the nation state which have been with us since the Enlightenment, the appeal to reason and to individual liberties which are enshrined in the modern nation state? That is the challenge facing the modern nation state today, and for which we hope to find some answers.
The newer nation states, such as in Ireland, have not always proceeded along these rationalistic and cooperative means and measures of pan-Europeanism, the conflict in the North being paradigmatic in this case. However, the space and platform, with the possibilities of cooperation at national level, and the opportunity of Europe gave us was, in the end, crucial to the solution of this conflict.
The earlier modern nation states were not without conflict, indeed it was because of their warfare and the possibility of over-coming it that the idea of the European community had its genesis just after the Second World War, when that cataclysm propelled the participants to search urgently for peace.
The revulsion to killing, especially for political ends, is rooted deep in human nature, and while it has inspired the modern miracle of the European Union with its programme for peace, on the national stage in Ireland, for many years, it was still mired in the politics and extreme actions of the past. Since Ireland remained neutral during the war, this meant that the impetus for change was slower than in those countries which had endured the cataclysm.
The role of the intelligentsia is more clear-cut in nation states at the time of their emergence than at any time thereafter. They are to the forefront of the founding of nation states, especially the modern nation states and republics that have sprung up worldwide after the Enlightenment. Ever since that time there has been a class apart from government whom the government cannot fool, and the outcome, whether cultural or political, depends on the noise they make, but we have seen, with the advance of communication, this can be impeded through mass-media strategies.
The very word nation is etymologically rooted in the Latin word for birth, and since death is the mother of beauty, in those early days of the state, the intelligentsia are almost always bound up with death. Indeed, of the leading 1916 leaders who were executed, three were poets. What cannot escape us is their emotional identification with territory, the nation state.
Therefore, the first level of nationhood is the celebration of death and sacrifice and equating it with birth and fertility. The intelligentsia who first brought about the modern nation state were also romantics, some with an imperative to act out their ideas. They are responsible for the birth of what Yeats called a terrible beauty, nationalism.
Not only did the revolution against despots took place there over a century later than those of the nation states in Europe, but Ireland was revolting against colonial powers. More pertinently, after the revolution against colonialism, we had a civil war almost immediately. Therefore it took Ireland longer as a state to recover from the revolutionary ferment. A long extended wake is perhaps the first legacy of any revolution, particularly in Ireland where the tradition of the wake was already established with its funeral games and fertility rites all bound into ceremonial both tragic and comedic.
Our propensity for funeral-going has marked our first hundred years as a nation. By respecting the dead in a very ostentatious manner and never speaking ill of them we are creating conditions in which the bloody birth of the nation can be subsumed into a celebration of mourning.
Revolutionaries have looked on their projected nation state as a mother, and in some cases, as in Ireland, writings such as in Patrick Pearse’s “The Mother” have posited a state of sacrificial death as being more akin to or even superseding birth itself.
Perhaps the long extended wake was needed to mourn not only the physical deaths but the spiritual betrayals of the Civil War. The intelligentsia who brought about the revolution were soon silenced by a culture of complicity, mired in the betrayals of that war. Frozen in that historic moment, politicians are seemingly unable to transcend the divisions of gender, caste and class, but rely on covert and secret associations based on past loyalties and survival tactics as in a time of civil war, to do the business of everyday. In the fractured psyche of the new state, a consensus, largely anti-intellectual, arose – this being largely marked in the early period of the state, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. It may be that all bloody revolutions, for reasons of blood sacrifice and guilt, are unable to progress towards a reconciliation with the past, but this is much more the case with a new state that has endured a civil war.
In Ireland, the successors to this revolution are the heirs of families involved in the Civil War, so behind the familial pedigree is the shame that their ancestors who engaged in warfare may have had blood on their hands. In the day to day life of the new state, a quietism set in, and this recourse to silence in Ireland has resulted in a clandestine style of decision-making, which means that the loyalty is to a person and family rather than a more abstract idea of justice, and such loyalties exist even today having their origins in the early conflict of the state.
For example, it is noted that individuals who are corrupt on election, are discovered to be so, are re-elected – which would show that what matters in Ireland is not the rights or wrongs of any issue, but the number of your supporters you can muster. Core principles of justice are abandoned in the need to identify with power and success. So these local and provincial leaders of the former dispossessed are at the heart of governments who win elections bust lose future direction.
In the quietus that followed, in the 1930s, when the Constitution was written (1937), with its concomitant anti-intellectualism, the role of the intelligentsia is subdued – the conflict with the authority of a colonial power marked them as dissident, but they found themselves silenced by those who succeeded in that clandestine style of power became dynastic rulers with popular appeal to the people, based on past association and loyalties. The Irish Constitution, which places the family above the state, therefore plays on the loyalties of our fractured past, with a detrimental effect on the real process and cooperation needed in nation-building.
The territorial war waged in the North has only recently allowed us to bring to national closure the fact that our birth as a nation was one in which death was the preferred modus vivendi, which is a paradox because the succeeding people of the nation have both to deal with the waste of sacrificial death whilst ennobling it. This is an impossible aspiration, as the deaths in H-blocks in the eighties showed, while in the south of the state, the constitution itself was based on ideals which are at the same time life enhancing and death embracing- and a claim to the territory in the North which was only abolished by the Belfast Agreement in 1998, more than two hundred years after revolution broke out in Europe.
On the international front, there were many ideological battlegrounds during the Cold War period and Ireland became in some way the focus of a special attention because she was unique in the West – not only had she a colonialist past but also the best aspects of a pre-industrial society, so the negative effects of the industrial revolution in producing a mass culture had not yet taken hold, resulting in a high individualism along with, however a social conservatism. Ireland was ripe for the importation of new ideologies, such as Marxism and feminism.
Because we are a modern nation, we have been inundated with ideas and ceremonies from other cultures, and have found ourselves celebrated nationally as the first state to break away from the habits of colonial powers. Scholars and historians have written of us as a post-colonial state, noting sadly that no sooner have we dismantled the power apparatus of colonialism than we mimic it in our customs and observances. What we have seen in our short history of less than a hundred years is the dismantling of the past of imperialism, while the more revolutionary intellectuals, those who stayed revolutionary after the foundation of the state, have made it their life’s work to find imperialism at work in the heart of the new nation, found that the Catholic Church continued in its role of stifling opinion long after the birth of the nation. The meaning of the territory has shifted from the polemical aggrandizement of the state to the control, and thought control over different bodies, such as women’s bodies.
In the years of quietus in Ireland, the Constitution laid out the forms of government while both the Church and the Press and the government presented a monolithic face of Catholicism. This was broken in the 1950s by the Noel Browne affair, who sought to bring the family into the social sphere, so that it would no longer be a private institution, but a function of the state. The bishops, particularly Jeremiah Newman of Limerick, and John Charles McQuaid of Dublin fought to have the supremacy of the Church in the family, to the point of impoverishing families. Therefore the role of the first intellectuals of the nation state, its writers, was to dissect and criticize the role of the Church, and since Church and State were bound to each other as Siamese twins, often their criticism had to come from afar, as in the early days of the state when all intellectuals were per se banished from the land – O’Connor, O Faolain, Beckett, not to speak of the earlier émigrés Joyce and Yeats, who despite his nationalism, spent most of his years outside Ireland.
It seems the exile’s eye is sharpened by the experience of being alien in another country, all the better to feast those eyes on the homeland and because it is tinged with the fresh air of being an outsider, their criticisms are all the more pungent and powerful.
Indeed this “advance and return” of emigrants, who are raised in an alien culture – but with emotional identification with an Irish mother ,who then comes to symbolize the nation – is a pattern in Irish culture, and goes back to the revolution of 1916 in that those intellectuals who brought about the birth of the nation state follow this pattern. Not only is the identification with the mother and her passive state upheld by the Irish intelligentsia, and embodied in the constitution, it is a pattern of modern nation states founded on religion, and is the core of the present profound disagreement with Islam that all the western liberal democracies experience as they move away from the identification of nation and the mother, with its life/death antimonies in the past.
Since, with our accession to Europe it was possible for the first time since our beginning as a nation to move away from the stifling authority of Church and an inherited class who took power – we have been able to move in a wider brief towards a liberal agenda away from patristic concerns of death and history. As we approach the centenary of the founding of our nation state, Ireland, we have a richly documented past both from the early days of the nation state, since our emergence as a nation coincided with a huge increase in communication possibilities both nationally and internationally. This can have positive as well as negative effects.
In the countries of the EU, the role of the intelligentsia as critics is central to maintaining a good government, and the accord of nations which has brought about the birth of the European Union has always had the possibilities a free and questioning press, where intellectuals of different nations debate and discuss their priorities – even if this at times was stunted because of the polarized ideas of the Cold War. This mutual exchange is beneficial to the modern nation, because with the modern emphasis on purely commercial aspects, or globalization, where, we have seen, there is always the danger of an in-built elite who will take and maintain power without interrogation or specific direction, other than self-aggrandizement. The possibilities of integration with Europe also goes on hand-in-hand with the building of national consciousness, and therefore Europe holds, in its structures of legislative process, and the framework of dialogue, the possibilities reconciliation and ultimately peace at all levels.
The intelligentsia, from the time of their emergence to their existence as a fully equipped nation state, articulate the deeper longings for a new identity and a future based on justice, as against recidivist emotions such as clinging to the past. They in fact make the past dynamic, and the grounding of their search for justice.
This is all the more so for the intellectuals of modern Ireland, who must engage abroad, or with former powers, and move away from the dynastic style of nation we have inherited.
The basis of the EU political entity is not ideological, and what was imperative in the nation state of the past, has progressed through rational and legislative structures, to a community founded on common accord, which takes precedence over the ideology of the past. The challenge now is how to balance the demands of commerce with the need to protect the environment.
On the European stage, the maintenance of national identity and cultural difference such as language means that globalization will not subsume these important distinctions, which give to the whole a rich and sustainable model and fabric, based as it is on intelligent cooperation and rational ordering of legislation.
The common destiny of nations is to be bound together in those deep concerns affecting them which transcend national identities and national boundaries.
We are rich in perspectives. Indeed, the role of the intelligentsia was never more needed now that the market has become so dominant, the need for an objective critical voice which will guide us through the next stage, as we contemplate the need to address the damage such free for all policies have cost the environment.
We are a long way from the time Louis XIV declared “L’etat C’est Moi”, and found his descendants headless under the new regime of the Enlightenment. What the new modern states need is the detachment of its intelligentsia in finding away out of the artificial consensus which arose out of Cold War politics, and is now having its nadir through globalization. Globalisation is a custom, a second nature to which we have adapted ourselves, in the over-riding need for peaceful engagement after the War which had arisen out of nationalistic concerns. The engagement of these intellectuals, dissident though working towards a higher form of unified humanism will affect all the modern nations, including Ireland, in its on going and successful project of peace on earth.