“In fact, I’d say the real war was a war over swibbles.  I mean it was the last war.  It was the war between people who wanted swibbles and those who didn’t… Needless to say, we won” (Philip K. Dick, ‘Service Call’ 1955).

In Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘Service Call’ the world is (about to become) policed by biological telepathic organisms encased in mechanical housing.  These entities called ‘swibbles’ were developed and sold as a way of stopping conflict ensuing from ideological differences.  When a swibble comes across an individual that holds an ideological perspective different from the mainstream they are literally ingested by the machine.

'Service Call' by Philip K Dick available in Volume 4 of the Collected Stories (Gollancz)

Therefore people install swibbles in their homes to monitor their thought process and ensure they do not stray from the established ideology, a way of demonstrating their adherence to the hegemony.  As the swibble repairman in the story proudly proclaims:

“There won’t be any more conflicts, because we don’t have any more contrary ideologies.  It doesn’t really matter what ideology we have; it isn’t important whether it’s Communism or Free Enterprise or Socialism or Fascism or Slavery.  What’s important is that every one of us agrees completely; that we’re all absolutely loyal.  And as long as we have our swibbles… You know the sense of security and satisfaction in being certain that your ideology is exactly congruent with that of everyone else in the world.  There’s no possibility, no chance whatsoever that you’ll go astray – and some passing swibble will feed on you”

Dick’s story offers a science fiction metaphor for what Foucault terms the practice of ‘Governmentality’.  Governmentality accounts for the range of practices and discourses that are encompassed within the apparatus of the state.  Part of this process involves the construction and prescription of ‘truth’ which are produced through tactics of governing, and reproduce systems of power.  Foucault argues that the emergence of modern government has resulted “…on the one hand, in the formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of knowledges [savoirs]”.  In Dick’s story, govermentality takes on a physical manifestation in the form of the swibble, while for Foucault this type of power is a force of immanence moving in less perceptible ways through the interconnection of power/knowledge.  Nevertheless, in both cases consensus with the mainstream is something that is ‘opted’ for in favour of the tacit threat of ostracisation and violence.  As Foucault suggests, “…with government it is a question not of imposing law on men but of disposing things: that is of employing tactics rather than laws, or even of using laws themselves as tactics – to arrange things in such a way that through a certain number of means, such-and-such ends may be achieved”.

Last weekend I heard on the radio another commentator incensed by public sector union unrest.  I don’t know who it was and I don’t think it really matters.  The opinion was hardly unique, nor separable from the amorphous glut of anti-public sector sentiment currently hanging pungently like a plume of volcanic ash clouding our mental horizons. The suggestion was being made that the public sector were working against ‘economic recovery’. Nowadays it seems you can instantly discredit any agenda by simply suggesting it has the potential to curtain a speedy ‘economic recovery’.  In fact, any agenda that does not directly support a profit motive can be dismissed outright as illegitimate.  ‘Economic recovery’ is the only game in town.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider this perspective: why ‘economic recovery’ as opposed to ‘economic reform’?  ‘Recovery’ implies, despite evidence stacked to the contrary, that there was nothing wrong with the system, that it is merely in a period of ‘ill-health’ which can be amended by the correct prescription of ‘medicine’.  ‘Reform’ on the other hand implies that there are systemic problems that would need to be corrected, which would imply political and institutional transformation.  Thus an agenda of ‘economic recovery’ and ‘public sector reform’ is a discursive tactic of governmentality that sustains, rather than overturns, the status-quo.  The economic system needs to be ‘revived’ while the public sector needs to be ‘modified’ and ‘improved’.  Meanwhile, NAMA seeks the socialization of private debt.  Ireland is populated by swibbles with their dial set to the neoliberal.

The “such-and-such ends” of contemporary Irish governmentality is the restoration and further embedding of the same economic and political systems.  The swibbles in this regime take the form of corrective discourses, insidious terms like ‘economic recovery’ and ‘the national interest’ that are used to swallow up conflicting ideologies and agendas.  While public-sector discontent is about a range of issues including labour conditions and social equity, the neoliberal swibbles swallow the whole debate into the economic discourse of pay-cuts and ‘efficiencies’.  Thus public servants are effectively villainised as selfish, stubborn, and smugly trying to hang on to pay and privilege at a time of national instability.  Even within the narrow confines of the economic discourse that this has been played out, such a broad-brush description of the public sector is disingenuous.  Moreover, there is little room afforded to airing this debate in terms of the right of workers’ unions to resist exploitation, or in terms of clinging on to the vestiges of the welfare state at a time when economic fears offer the state an excuse to pillage remaining provisions.  This is not simply a debate about public pay.  It is a debate about public services.  It is about access to better schools, the provision of a national medical service, social welfare, the provision of safe public spaces, places of recreation for children and teenagers, libraries, and a host of other services that fall outside of the remit of what is economically profitable.

Thus a divide and conquer tactic has pitted the dissatisfaction with the deal for ‘public-sector reform’ against ‘economic recovery’.  The rationale for this is not so much that it will create jobs but that it will save on public expenditure.  Such savings are seen as necessary to ‘economic recovery’, yet, at the same time, it is also necessary to channel these savings into bank recapitalisation and NAMA, because these measures are also viewed as necessary to ‘economic recovery’.  Within this dialectic, it is clear that the objective is not simply to make savings in the public purse, but that it is a political decision designed to retain power within a certain sector of society and to uphold a particular ideological perspective.  Therefore, regardless of what opinion any of us may hold in relation to the public sector, this debate should be seen as political and not merely economic.

The economic is not apolitical, it is deeply political.  Currently public servants are given only a one-dimensional framework to defend their position, as other discourses are effectively silenced by the swibble.  We, therefore, are having a key debate for Irish society within a one-dimensional framework.  The implications of having this type of discussion in this way go beyond the immediate instance of public-sector ‘dissent’.  As part of the always emerging system of governmentality, it holds important ramifications for the future of Irish civil and political society.  In a recent article, critical urban theorist Peter Marcuse suggests that “todays-more-than-financial-crisis” is being rationalised away as an anomaly within the system of neoliberal capitalism, a cog to be corrected rather than indicative of more systemic failures.

“The financial crisis seems to be spreading, to engulf more and more people, to cause more and more unemployment, insecurity, hunger and want, a greater and greater dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, with inequality, luxury in the midst of poverty, illiteracy, substantive as well as linguistic, selfishness in the place of solidarity, isolation in the place of love.  But I think it is not the financial crisis spreading to other parts of the economy that we confront, but an economy whose contradictions are erupting in a very visible manner in the financial sector, but only as manifestations of much more deep-seated contradictions which we should not allow to be concealed in the focus on issues of regulation or deregulation in one small excrescence of a fundamentally flawed system as a whole.  The problem is not in unregulated credit default swaps or out of control hedge funds; the problem is in exploitation, domination, repression system-wide… Calling greed ‘the profit motive’ is an euphemism that tries to justify a system that relies on greed to produce growth at the expense of all other values…”

Marcuse’s argument suggests that in the current crisis, states have been very effective in erecting a wall against any fundamental questioning of the system of neoliberal governance based on the support of market deregulation and the removal of social provision.  This is evident in Ireland, where we have talk of ‘public-sector reform’ but only ‘economic recovery’.  Despite widespread criticism of the islands of privilege and the ultimate despondency that the Irish economic model has created, the crisis is considered in policy terms to be the outcome of a number of ‘excesses’ in what is still being seen as a fundamentally sound system.  The ongoing governmentalization of the state is being adjusted to the current crisis of accumulation and adapted in such a way as to sustain the life of neoliberal capitalist project.  Reducing everything to the economic motivations enables the justification of ideological and political decisions without calling them ideological or political.  This is ultimately as reductive as a world in which our thoughts are controlled by swibbles.  As Marcuse warns, “A society one-dimensional in its driving force produces one-dimensional people, and struggles to be supported by them”.  When we cease to question ‘truth’ and rely instead on the complacent comfort of dogma, our options and ultimately our human potential become enslaved.

We need to start thinking about the current situation as a ‘more-than-financial’ crisis and start coming up with solutions that are similarly ‘more-than-financial’.  The example of the public sector is but one aspect of such a trajectory.  We can begin by viewing these debates as being about public services as opposed to pay.  Within this context, we need to have a real discussion about building an over-arching strategy for public services in Ireland.  This discussion needs to involve not only the ‘public sector’ but the public in general, for while it is the jobs of a certain sector that we are discussing it is the services that we all use that will be affected by its outcome.  Here we should not start with what we can ‘afford’ financially and use this tunnel of light to dictate the dimensions of the discussion.  We should start instead with a utopian vision of the type of public services that we would like, what we can not afford to do without, and then look for innovative ways of achieving these goals.  The same logic can be applied to the issue of housing vacancy and ghost estates.  We need to escape the trap of seeing these issues as primarily monetary, and expand our vision to encompass a societal perspective on the current situation; one that challenges and not just patches up the system.  This is not an anti-pragmatic illusion, this is important.  Being tied to the logic of neoliberalism means that we will continue to be caught within a self-perpetuating circle, an eternal return of expansion and recession.  For NAMA to succeed, it will need to re-inflate the property market, which will mean the re-inflation of the surrounding apparatus of interests in banking, property, planning, and government.  The assumption that this time we can regulate the system properly and stave off another crash of this magnitude is not enough.  If we want change we need to stop and dismantle the cyboric engine of society.  What we have currently is a pit-stop, a quick fix to get the dodgy motor back on the road to ‘recovery’.  This is an alluring option in that is gets the country ‘up and running’ again quickly.  But it is also one in which the engine is feeding off itself, siphoning critical components into the economic fuel line, guzzling its organs until all that’s left is a beating corporate heart, which will, when it skips a beat, leave the country is worse state of recession than at present.  We need to dismantle the societal machine, discuss, debate and decide what this now means, where we are headed and what we want to achieve.  Looking at prosperity as a blurry outline distant on the horizon is difficult, but unless we take the time to flesh out this mirage as a utopia we actually want to live in, recovery could quickly turn to dystopia no matter how soon we get there.

Cian O’ Callaghan



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