Last night RTE’s Prime Time looked at the impacts on Ireland’s crisis on different age cohorts. Prime Time focused their report around two studies, one from the ESRI and one from UCD, which broadly explored the ways in which different generations in Irish society were being affected by, and copying with, the crisis. The first of these studies suggested that over-45s were less hard hit by the recession, while the latter suggested some of the ways in which families were engaged in inter-generational solidarities that helped them cope with unemployment and cut-backs.
Prime Time was having none of this however. Their report was a rather shame-faced and ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn the findings of these studies into a sensationalist debate pitting ‘unemployed’ youth against ‘comfortable’ pensioners. The researchers from ESRI and UCD interviewed in the report never made these claims and were sometimes at pains to dispute them. Meanwhile, despite what was being said, a Prime Time reporter continued to declare this hypothesis in voiceover and on-camera segments.
When it got to the studio debate Pat Kenny did his best to railroad his guests into echoing this spurious hypothesis. To their credit, the panel and the audience alike refused to take the bait. Rather than cow-tow to Prime Time’s attempts to construct sensationalist news, they continued to reiterate that the real issue was that of youth unemployment.
The show offered an interesting example of what many theorists have been calling an increasingly ‘postdemocratic’ and ‘postpolitical’ public sphere. What is meant by this is that the growing influence that non-state actors (such as multinational companies and transnational organisations like the IMF and World Bank) have on the internal policy formation of nation-states, has meant that in many cases ‘democracy’ has been reduced to citizens’ ability to choose between different political parties, but that they have lost the power to actively shape policy. This has the effect of nullifying true ‘agonistic’ politics that actually propose different political-economic visions of society, and replacing it with technocratic policy formation that aims towards achieving consensus around the normative vision of neoliberal capitalism. As Erik Swyngedouw (2009) puts it:
In this postdemocratic postpolitical era, adversarial politics (of the left/right variety or of radically divergent struggles over imagining and naming different socio-environmental futures, for example) are considered hopelessly out of date. Although disagreement and debate are, of course, still possible, they operate within an overall model of elite consensus and agreement, subordinated to a managerial-technocratic regime… There is no contestation over the givens of the situation… there is only debate over the technologies of management, the arrangements of policing and the configuration of those who already have a stake, whose voice is already recognized as legitimate.
The Prime Time show demonstrated this well. The report and studio debate sought to construct – whether due to some underlying political bias or merely to produce entertaining ‘pundit-style’ television –a narrative that pitted two sections of the population against each other. But the parameters of the proposed debate skirted around the issue of class-based redistribution of wealth and did not even broach the currently contentious issue of corporate tax or the extent to which the state’s existing tax revenues go into servicing sovereign debt. These political issues were off the table. In this sense there was no question of increasing the public spend on job creation, unemployment benefit, or the old age pension. The only question was how the public funds available in the current ‘given situation’ were to be distributed to differentially ‘deserving’ sections of the citizenry.
The fact that the attempt to construct this oppositional narrative was such a resounding failure makes it easier to pick apart its weaknesses. But this has sadly not always been the case, as successful campaigns to pit various sections of the population against each other have been a mainstay in Ireland since the beginning of the crisis. However, the refusal of all involved in this show to consider the problem in these terms is a welcome, if limited, indication that a postpolitical whitewash will not always hold.