Every so often when you’re engaged in political or activist circles you come across people making what seem like sensible points and then later on down the line you come across them again and they’re ranting about something absolutely absurd. Whether that’s flouride, chemtrails or whatever, finding out that someone can be good on one issue but absolutely off the deep end on another is a common phenomenon across the political spectrum. There’s a very simple reason for this — most people don’t attempt to ground their politics in a robust framework. The majority of people come to politics through individual issues and then are swayed towards other positions through media consumption, networks and relationships. Most people read a few books and cobble together a sort of overarching worldview from that. I’ve done that myself. But the issue with an ad hoc approach, rather than attempting to ground beliefs in a robust and comprehensive system of analysis is that it leaves you with blind spots. And so I come to ‘corruption’ and Gemma O’Doherty’s attempt to run for President.
Obviously corruption is a bad thing and it should be minimised wherever possible. However, corruption is not a uniquely Irish (or anywhere) phenomenon. It arises out of two factors: poor governance and incentive. As the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But there seems to be an increasing movement in certain aspects of Irish political discourse, especially on social media, to view corruption as the sole thing that is holding society back. And it is this slip into conspiratorial thinking that needs to be fought by the left wing.
Conspiracy theories have plagued the left (and the right, but who cares) probably since there was a ‘left’. There’s a mindset that ‘the world is unfair’ that some people don’t move beyond. That can lead them to unquestioningly parroting left-wing talking points, which is useful only if you think of politics as a numbers game, and it can also lead them to attributing the world being unfair to shadowy made-up forces. But since so many people are happy to just think of politics as a head-count, very few forces are actually engaged in deep political education and this means that people are never challenged to move beyond the simplistic idea that the game is rigged. Billionaires do work in unison a lot of the time, in a way that could be seen as being coordinated by some shadowy cabal, but the fact is that the cabal is unnecessary. The billionaires take their cue from their shared class interests. There is no need to formalise it.
The same thing is ongoing in the British Labour Party. Political education in the political mainstream, and in vast swathes of the British left as well, has been poor for decades. So when criticisms of Israel as a settler-colonial ethno-state start to be made, again it stops being a dispassionate analysis of the power dynamics in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it can become full of anti-Semitic tropes of secret influence and the like. Add to this the bad faith smears by ambitious members of the post-Blairite right wing of the Labour Party, it creates a toxic feedback loop of terrible analysis and tribalism. The only way to arrest this toxic combination is through a robust system of political education and a repudiation of any genuine anti-Semitism.
So that brings us to Irish situation and to Gemma O’Doherty in particular. In the Facebook post announcing her intention to run for the Presidency, O’Doherty says “The overriding remedy is to tackle the greed and corruption of the tiny elite who continue to destroy it for the majority.”
But who are the ‘elite’ that Gemma is talking about. And what is their end goal? Because — and I admit, this is me characterising her view points, since I can’t find a succinct or comprehensive version of her world view — it looks like Gemma’s idea of who the elites are are some Gardai, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, Denis O’Brien and a few other miscellaneous people. But there’s no attempt to create a consistent mode of analysis. In Gemma’s mind, what is the ur-elite. What are the essential characteristics of someone in the elite? This is important, because barring that, you end up in a situation where an ‘elite’ is just anyone you don’t like.
It’s important to unpick this though, because, like with all conspiracy theories, there’s sometimes an overlap with the truth. Denis O’Brien is clearly in the elite, in any definition of the word. And his business practices are the subject of tribunal findings. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are also clearly operating in the interests of the elite (in this case, using my definition, the interests of capital and its holders) and many members of their members are drawn from the local bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie around the country. Similarly the Gardai are clearly corrupt and — again — operate in the interests of the elite.
But where my analysis and Gemma’s analysis diverges is that Gemma never attempts to provide a ‘why’. Why are these forces corrupt. And why are these forces the ‘elite’. I would argue that the interests of capital accumulation are the logic that is necessary for these elites to flourish. Maybe Gemma would agree, but she has never — to this point — argued that logic. Gemma, and her legion of rabid fans on social media, seem to believe that corruption is an end to itself, and that by stomping out corruption we solve many of Ireland’s many troubles. However, that is clearly not the case. Clamping down on corruption could lead to a reduction in the amount of corruption, but it also may not. Similarly, clamping down on corruption could see a reduction in suffering for some people in Ireland, but the majority of the issues in Ireland are not to do with corruption — they’re to do with the operation of capitalism and resource allocation.
This next section contains some discussion of pedophilia and violence against children that you can skip if you need to. I will mark the end of the section clearly with another row of dashes.
Additionally, there seems to be an undercurrent of a belief in an elite obsession with paedophilia and violence against children that is prevalent in Gemma’s social media posting and especially in the posting from accounts that are adjacent to what I am going to call #MaryBoyle Twitter. The Mary Boyle story is a tragedy. And if it turns out that a local politician was involved and the police helped cover it up I wouldn’t be surprised. But the thing is that Gemma hasn’t managed to prove that. Her reporting on the issue has been entirely innuendo and hasn’t managed to uncover the real killer or find any smoking gun of proof of a cover up. While those things could be true, they could also not be true, it’s simply not been proven. It seems to be a trend with Gemma to then link cases like the Bill Kenneally case, which I am familiar with from living in Waterford, with the Mary Boyle case, and to make some sort of argument that there are elites orchestrated large scale cover ups of abuses against children. Again, that may be the case, but again, that’s no proven. And what is absolutely not proven is that there is orchestration of these things.
As I said with the billionaire point above, there’s no need for there to be overt organisation. When the system operates as normal, these things just happen. We created a system where the local FF/FG politician had a lot of pull in the local area. We created a system where they had a lot to lose in a scandal. We created a system where gardai have a lot of scope for abuse and corruption. The natural result of the confluence of these factors is that these people looked out for one another when they needed to. That these things are true is not evidence of the raison d’etre of Fianna Fail existing is to run pedophile rings. Where there is power, there are people who are drawn to the ability to abuse that power. That’s true in Hollywood, that’s true in the Catholic Church, that’s true in the BBC. Predators will use whatever they’re given to prey. That means that there are obviously going to be pedophiles in positions of power, and they’ll use that power to evade detection and to leverage themselves out of situations where they might face punishment. But that does not mean we have an elite in Ireland that exists to monster children. We have an elite in Ireland that exists to perpetuate itself and to attempt to gain a monopoly on capital, and it just so happens that members of that elite also monster children.
But this lack of a coherent worldview sees O’Doherty take on plenty of other targets that may surprise some of her supporters, but may not. There’s plenty of reactionaries that wear the clothes of ‘anti-establishmentism’. Indeed the entire phrase ‘anti-establishmentism’ is a good example of my point. It can be widened or shortened to encompass many different viewpoints and doesn’t provide really any illuminating analysis. But I digress.
This next section contains transphobia, again I will mark the end with another row of dashes.
O’Doherty has a particular animus against trans people, with multiple instances of her tweeting condemning government policy on trans teens.
EDIT: I’ve changed the screenshot here, since the account that O’Doherty was directly replying to was blocked. I don’t think it changes substantially the context or what I’m trying to say here, but for full disclosure the image has been changed.
This one is particularly illuminating, since it not only says that victories for trans rights are motivated by pedophilia, but also confuses Bill Kenneally, the brother of a Fianna Fail politician, for the brother of a Fine Gael one. What we see here is that O’Doherty’s ‘anti-corruption’ facade is nothing but a thin veneer for anti-trans rhetoric. The facts are changed and distorted to suit her point. And that is the point I’m trying to make in a nutshell.
The ‘anti-corruption’ brigade is an ideological sleight of hand, it is an attempt to rouse popular support for a very particular set of interests and to obfuscate the real problems. O’Doherty has run stings against pro-choice clinics before and has been busy creating a coalition of the sort of conspiratorial wings of the broadly ‘anti-establishment’ parties, with support from some supporters of Sinn Fein, a wing of the Social Democrats’ bizarre internal contradiction (sorry politics). This was clearly with the aim of some sort of run at politics, and now we have the answer.
The politics embodied by O’Doherty are the politics of frustration, they are inchoate anger, lashing out at whatever. They are the politics of angry Facebook pages and obsessive Twitter accounts. There is no attempt to build something, no attempt to understand, no attempt to provide an ideological answer. Instead you get random pops at different targets, some of whom everyone can get behind (who is going to stand up for pedophiles?) but oftentimes bring you into a dark place.
Why should innocent Muslims be surveilled in their place of worship? Where’s the evidence that we have ‘extremist mosques’ in Ireland? Why are so many of Ireland’s ‘left-wing’ figures supporting a woman who not only is anti-choice, but supports Donald Trump — or at least opposes protesting Trump? It is this politics of frustration that explains these things — you can’t find a common theme in the reasoning behind this constellation of forces, because there is no reasoning, only anger. Anger at being dispossessed, anger at being ignored, anger at ‘the world being unfair’.
But it is a failure of the Irish left that this has festered for so long. The fact that Gemma O’Doherty has the profile to launch a bid for the presidency like this is a failure of the left. If she was to gain a nomination, that would be a failure of the left. And, god forbid, if she was elected, that would be a failure of the left.
We have failed to spell out to people a real vision, to educate people behind the real forces that shape this country. There’s a huge constituency of people now who are just angry and we have not given them anything to help them to deal with that anger. And if we don’t they’ll continue believing any old conspiracy theory. We must do better.