‘Keeping it Real’ by Gavan Titley

The Media and the Teaching Unions

Following the introduction of his first ‘austerity’ budget in 2009, Irish Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan incensed many Irish people by boasting while traveling abroad that there ‘would have been riots’ had similar cuts to pay, pensions and welfare been imposed in other countries. The ruling party, Fianna Fail [Soldiers of Destiny] who caused one of the worst economic crises of any western ‘democracy’ have had to appease their neo-conservative paymasters and controllers. The International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank were chief targets among the audience the Minister would have had in mind while making his remarks and all the signs since then are that they were suitably impressed. While billions are being transferred to failed banks and in compensation for failed property developers who have been funders of Fianna Fail, another catastrophic budget has since been inflicted on Irish people while more are promised.  Our only consolation, evidently, is that we are no longer to be regarded as a member of the disgraced group of EU countries known as the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain made the most spectacular messes of their economies). Ireland’s teachers, much less their unions, would have been right down at the bottom of the list of publics Mr Lenihan was trying to impress. If they were on it at all.

The Easter break is traditionally the time when the Irish teaching unions hold their annual conferences and the 2010 events were held this year in the context of a ‘pay deal’ that had been ‘negotiated’ between union leaders and the Irish Labour Relations Court (on behalf of the government) and for which approval was being sought from the union membership. As one trade unionist put it, if the deal had gone through it would have set employment rights back a hundred years. Two of the three teaching unions rejected the deal unanimously, while the third agreed to it by a majority of just 4 votes.

Mainstream media coverage of the teachers’ conferences has by and large been surreal – reflecting its near total subservience to the corporate, neo-liberal agenda and the virulent hostility towards the teaching profession which the government has fomented in order to disguise the gross inequality of its ‘recovery strategy’. We are grateful to Dr Gavan Titley of the National University of Ireland at Maynooth for this analysis of some of that coverage which he has kindly written for MediaBite.

Keeping it Real

By Gavan Titley

For as long as I can remember, coverage of the teachers’ conferences has provided journalists with a license for a spot of amateur anthropology, a chance to walk amongst this strange tribe as they let off steam before their annual 13 months of holiday. Yesterday’s (April 8th) coverage, however, is extraordinary: while the education unions can hardly expect the reverential coverage reserved for IBEC’s disinterested analysis of getting real in the real world, the suppressed hysteria discharged by teachers organizing politically really can’t pass without comment. So I penned a strongly worded letter to the Irish Times. That’s the first qualification: this article is my insurance policy (as it turns out, they printed it – [scroll down at link]). The second is that I’m not interested in the question of bias here. Not that I don’t think there is such a thing, or that specifying ideological suppositions or material conflicts isn’t important. My problem is that it can end up as an analytical end point rather than a point of departure. In other words, what is often important about discussions of media bias is what they say about our political conjuncture. In that respect these recent Irish Times pieces, in their profound aversion to not just political mobilisation, but to politics, reveals something about the immanence of market rationality in public life in Ireland.

Like the posthumous letters from Gerry to Holly in P.S. I Love You, Irish Times editorials are like missives from the afterlife of the Progressive Democrats (although they didn’t so much die as get ingested spiritually by the political class). In today’s ‘Teachers divided over pay deal’ the key lesson is that teachers can’t be trusted: not just not to spook our bond-age masters, but in their very subjectivity. The INTO conference, having voted as madam desired, is credited with mature, deliberative decision-making. ASTI and TUI, having rejected the really real, are dismissed as suffering from an ‘extraordinary’ absence of debate. For an editorial that – after Google told the Irish government that too many students were dependent on Google – called for an educational emphasis on critical thinking over rote repetition, this is hardly excellence. And if this reminds you of something, you’d be right: ASTI and TUI members are like headscarf wearing women in France. Unless the enlightenment at the end of the tunnel thinks like me, you can’t be rational or free like me. Irish teachers and European Muslims: ‘wrong-headed’ group-think, just in different ways.

The editorialists have no capacity to understand why teachers, in common with other workers now mobilizing against the comprador sell-out of union negotiators, are not willing to accept the flexibilisation of their working conditions under the unquestioned mantra of reform. Of course, the “We don’t want another Celtic Tiger. We don’t want to pay for anyone’s pink palaces or private jets” rhetoric is limited. Given that the fiction that there is no relation between the need for fiscal discipline in the public sector and the banking bailout has collapsed (futures derivatives, derived from our futures) public sector action needs to spell out the scale and consequences of this for once transparent transfer of wealth. The ‘pay deal’, as the National Public Service Alliance points out, acquiesces both in profound social disinvestment and in shirking opposition to cuts in social welfare and provision. Challenging the mediated divide between public and private sectors doesn’t mean trying to ‘win over’ public opinion, it means acting for the public by resisting the neoliberal redeployment of care from society to capital (on that whole public/private divide, it’s uplifting how many apartheid-busting couples I know whose lives look like this: private one unemployed, the public one demoralized because Sarah Carey says this will make the unemployed one feel better).

But it is exactly the slow burn of political articulation that freaks the IT. As against it, it employs two obvious modes of depoliticisation. The first is what Wendy Brown terms ‘the political rationality of neoliberalism’, that is, the reduction of political life to technocratic and managerial logics, a reduction that in turn rests on the reduction of all modalities of social and cultural life to a marketised ontology. To put this more bluntly, I am not sure that the IT leader writers could explain what they mean by an ‘additional productivity demand’ in an educational context. But it sounds good, all futurey and full of interface, and positions me quite sweetly as an enemy of innovation. It’s here, too, in an editorial on the ‘dumbing down’ scandal, where the last lines tell us that we must produce ‘nimble and flexible’ graduates. Quite apart from strange affinities with the demands for nimble and flexible child labour – small fingers, clean the machines – in the mills of 19th century Lancashire, these qualities are introduced in conclusion because there is no need to explain them, which masks the absence of capacity to do so.

The problem with this language is that it poses a serious political problem. As Mark Fisher argues in his superb book Capitalist Realism, education is inherently resistant to marketisation. The drive to measure and quantify processes that resist instrumental reduction produces what he calls ‘market stalinism’, that is “…the valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement” (2009: 42-3). Yet in struggling against this, teachers and others are being asked to tear a wormhole in the fabric of capitalist realism, to mobilize for perceived immobility, to protest in ways that are always already positioned as traditional, elitist, change-resistant, and scared of innovation. Oddly, in Ireland, these vague, de-territorialising futurisms are also lacquered with patriotism. This is why any strike, these days, is ‘out-moded’, and why political discussion and rhetoric in Ireland breaks down so often around claims to the real and adjudications of who really lives in the real world. As Fisher argues, “…capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business” (p17). Teachers, however partially, pose a threat not just to vested interests but also to an edifice that will involve enormous effort and sustained political conflict to even begin to transform. Their depiction in the IT yesterday as hysterics is not just crude reportage, it is the manifestation of a genuine conviction that they can’t possibly know themselves, they are not themselves, today. And like others resistant to reform of their profession, they simply confirm the need for more management and surveillance in the act of resisting it. The drive to de-specialise and manage education as just another flow of service delivery begins with imagining that workers can’t be trusted to recognize their own best interests, in the broadest sense.

The companion of technocratic unspeak – and the second mode of depoliticisation – is moralism, and IT editorials do moralism like the (imagined) needy love child of James and David Cameron. It’s like the old development education cartoon, where after a mother admonishes her child for leaving his food and not thinking of the starving masses, the starving masses phone him to say thanks when he dutifully clears his plate. Teachers shouldn’t protest against a drive towards insecurity and precariousness because of their – soon out-moded – privilege of having a job.  In other words, the particular stress of dealing with the impacts of social change in the social laboratory that is the modern classroom has not yet been fully augmented byt the stress currently suffered by private sector workers – of compulsory flexibility and late capitalist instability.

There are many ways of racing to the bottom, so don’t ‘moan’, as that’s what private sector workers are forced to endure. There’s the really real, again, insecure and precarious like the weather, and like the weather, a natural order in which you cannot interfere (except in favour of bond holders: they hate insecurity, and they are the totems that protect us from really really bad weather). Moralism polices this real, adjudicates holders of good and bad values, and ensures that emotive, individuated responses obscure political formulations and contestations. Bad teachers, shopping in Newry, good government, it basically means well. Etc. This was the final flourish of my strongly worded letter: ‘If you are serious about renewing the Republic, credit fellow citizens that organise against the delusion that ‘there is no alternative’ with more than a puzzling irrationality.’

(Or simply ask them – Sean Flynn’s pensées yesterday involved wondering if the absence of young teachers at the ASTI conference was because of some generationally transmitted political realism. So while ‘veterans railed’, “it would be fascinating to know what young ASTI members made of yesterday’s events”. Fascinating: maybe you can find a journalist to ask them, including the delegates who were actually there, and perhaps even investigate why such patterns of involvement exist in the union. Then perhaps analyse whether this is a result of generational advantages of time and life/job security worsened by the collapse of a Ponzi scheme economy obsessed with young people buying shit property, rather than reifying absent youth as the silent majority animated by the real. After all, the mad old radical ones were actually discussing this between fist bumps).

And then there’s the florid pen pictures of latent, mad muinteoir violence: would the Minister be booed or heckled, was there an imminent danger of jostling, or even worse, a hostile silence posing as silence, where the ‘scowls speak louder than howls’? Textbook stuff: all protest against the real is infantilized, because political maturity is equated with acceptance of its immanence (a metaphor perhaps not unconnected with the ideological journey of many 68-ers, but that’s a whole other story). As Todd Gitlin – no stranger to post 68 contradictions – analysed in The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the Left (1980) the intimation of violence is central to the coverage of protest, and the violence remains present even when it fails to materialize (hence the focus on ‘hostile silences’). Conflict, or course, is central to any form of reporting. But the infantilisation of teachers’ anger works to mask conflicts, not to reveal them. Anger is a reassuring emotion when it can be framed as impotent raging, and not, as Fintan O’Toole so brilliantly argued, as a precondition for mobilizing against the postmodern restoration of feudal relations. What the capitalist realism of the leader writer fears most is not conflict per se, but conflict that threatens to reveal that ours is not an era outside of history, that power relations have not dissipated in partnerships and synergies, that inequality cannot be endlessly relativised or culturalised, and that social and political antagonisms will not be magicked away by the cult of (national) management. A pure expression of this is Your Country Your Call – no negativity! Just positivity! My own entry was for a volunteer army of mood managers, or failing that, fridge magnets that light up when they sense that the human unit is thinking all negative – to ward off the wrong kind of critical thinking, watch motivate confidence innovate young population dynamism blueskiesthinking contribution creativity winking supportively at you. If Barbara Ehrenreich is looking for a postscript to the tyranny of positive thinking documented in Smile or Die (2010), it’s Ireland, grin and bear it. Is there no alternative to the manic opposition imagined between those going forward outside the box and the moaners ruining their buzz?

So how about not really our country, maybe still our call. The burgeoning resistance in education provides an opportunity to unpick the neo-corporate suppositions of ‘reform’ and relate them to the asset-stripping of public goods for private gain in society in Ireland. A first step will involve thinking seriously about the politics of language – as Sara Ansler argues, of developing ways of critiquing and opposing the project couched as reform while evading being positioning as the bearers of ‘anti-values of stagnation and mediocrity’ (good values, bad values). The actions of teachers and others have to be relentlessly explained as elements in a wider conflict that will no longer bear being reduced to public vs private. Instead, it is about reclaiming the public. Public services, as Harry Browne argues, need to be the first line of resistance, not the latest site of capitulation’.

And just out of pure irritation with all this really real dumbing down, I’m going to unproductively quote a French philosopher (Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy):

‘Any process that is intended to serve as a fragment of a politics of emancipation must be held superior to any managerial necessity… we have particularly to assert this superiority when the managerial constraint is declared to be ‘modern’, and is claimed to result from a ‘necessary concern to reform the country’ and ‘put an end to archaic practices’. It is a question of the impossible, in other words the real, which alone lifts us out of impotence. ‘Modernization’, as we see every day, is the name for a strict and servile definition of the possible. These ‘reforms’ invariably aim at making impossible what used to be practicable (for the largest number) and making profitable (for the dominant oligarchy) what did not use to be so. As against this managerial definition of the possible, we must assert that what we are going to do, though held by the agents of this management to be impossible, is in reality, at the very point of this impossibility, no more than the creation of a possibility previously unperceived and universally valid’ (2008: 50-51).

So educators, turn to face Tara Street, and ask yourself if you are feeling world class today.

Gavan Titley is a Lecturer in Media Studies in the School of English, Media and Theatre Studies, NUI Maynooth. His next contribution to productivity is a book with Alana Lentin on racism and the crisis of multiculturalism, published by Zed Books in 2011.

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