Michael Taft: The Anti-Politics


From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Peter Casey at the Presidential election centre at Dublin Castle on Saturday; Michael Taft

The worrying thing about Peter Casey’s campaign was that it was unplanned. Having spent weeks hovering around two percent, he stumbled into his controversy on the Travelling community.

Such was the outcry he temporarily withdrew from the contest. However, he apparently received enough support that he came out of isolation to talk about the hard-working Irish, paying for everything and getting nothing in return, the alarm-clock people, the culture of entitlement and welfare-dependency – all in the last few days.

He ended up with over 23 percent.

Now imagine if all this was planned from the very beginning, that his starting platform encompassed these issues and more. Imagine if went on about how we were forced to pay for banks, how we had to ‘control’ immigration, how the EU is taking power from the people (insert your favourite complaint here). What might his support have been?

There’s been a lot of commentary deconstructing this vote – what it represents (racism?), who it represents, its long-term political impact. There’s been exaggeration and dismissal. One Minister called Casey voters moaners. However, with nearly one-in-four voters supporting Casey, dismissal and name-calling doesn’t help us understand.

We can describe Casey’s vote as anti-politics – the rejection of traditional politics, institutions and discourse. Hence, the epigrammatic ‘he speaks the language of the people’; ‘he connects with ordinary folk’, ‘he’s not afraid to say what people think.’

This rejection emerges out of the de-politicisation of public space:

‘The New Right Project of the last few decades – neoliberalism – has attacked the public domain in the name of free markets and market discipline. Public choice theorists have positioned politicians and civil servants as self-interested rent-seekers. Deregulation, privatisation, and audit have removed power and responsibility from public actors. Why should people engage with formal politics when those involved are not to be trusted and no longer powerful?’

Therefore, in a contest for a ceremonial office in which the winner was already known, people could vote with few consequences. And many used it to express a frustration at a stifling political consensus, crystallised in a supply-and-confidence agreement between the two largest parties playing out a mock battle of Government and Opposition.

Anti-politics defies neat ideological categorisation. Casey can go on RTÉ radio and attack the greed of the one percent and even describe himself as a socialist-capitalist symbiosis. We can call it a right-wing vote, even a far-right vote, but there were not insignificant strands of anti-politics in the anti-austerity demonstrations a few years ago.

What ties all this together is an inchoate ‘anti-establishmentism’: the juxtaposition of a corrupt elite (liberal establishment, the rich, cosmopolitans) who exploit a ‘pure’ people. Ironically, Casey victimised the Travelling community but many people who voted for Casey see themselves as victims.

It’s not that Casey’s vote will result in a new party or movement – though Gemma O’Doherty is already calling on people to organise ‘anti-corruption’ candidates for the next locals and Europeans. It’s that it may infect political culture in subtle, indirect and subterranean ways, awaiting a clever, opportunistic leader to exploit people’s legitimate concerns. And that’s when the danger would become real.

Currently, the Left is incapable of meeting this challenge – whether to channel people’s understandable frustrations into a more positive politics or to challenge the more reactionary elements it contains. The Presidential campaign was one more example of that.

Michael D. Higgins showed that a life-long politician of the Left, a principled proponent of progressive causes, thoughtful, intelligent and capable of reaching a broad range of the population in all social constituencies, can win national office not just once, but twice – the latter in handsome fashion.

What does that say for the fragmented Left, stagnating in the polls? Some supported the President, some opposed him and others abstained.

President Higgins is holding up a mirror to us: what is it that he can do that we seemingly can’t? What is it that he is saying that we’re not?

More importantly, how is it that he instills confidence in the majority of people and we don’t?

Hopefully the Presidential election will force progressives and the broad Left to do some serious reflection on the nature of anti-politics – both its symbols and its underlying narrative.

But just as importantly, we need to begin constructing a politics that can convince people, inspire their confidence, and seriously challenge for power – to persuade them that politics itself has the power to resolve problems collectively, and reverse the marketisation of people’s economic and social relationships.

A big ask but at least we have one important asset – for the next seven years we have a President who understands these issues.

Michael Taft is a researcher for SIPTU and author of the political economy blog, Notes on the Front.


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45 thoughts on “Michael Taft: The Anti-Politics

  1. Ollie Cromwell

    Opportunity is the mother of invention.
    Casey’s stunning rise in the polls from nowhere within such a short period of time is fascinating.
    Michael’s thoughtful analysis raises some interesting points – Fintan O’Toole’s instant labelling of Casey’s supporters as fascists in the IT is yawningly predictable and not dissimilar to the early “swivel-eyed loons ” jibes when UKIP began rising in the polls.
    Treating voters with contempt and ignoring rising populism across the globe is dangerous folly.
    We’ve not heard the last of Casey and his accidental discovery of the ignored electorate.
    Not by a long chalk.

    1. Starina

      came here to say this. If the youth had come out to vote, Casey’s percentage would have been far, far smaller.

      1. Owen C

        23% of 44%. And that compares against 65-70% who vote in a GE typically, and the 50-60% who vote in local and European elections. So on that basis, assuming no protest vote, 23% in this Prez election would be expected to get 18-19% in a local or European election, and 15-16% in a GE. Not exactly “nothing”.

        Big issue in this election was the willingness of the two mainstream parties to skip it and the decision by Labour to use a safety first approach with MDH. So there was a huge gap or vacuum that the big parties decided to leave open, which we seem shocked that someone unpleasant sought to fill. The only issue is whether it remains open, even after FF/FG come back in, at the local and European (and potentially GE) elections in May.

        1. Jeffrey

          this was Presidential elections, meaningless for most and even those who voted. Nothing usable for any extrapolation to regular local elections or others. Nothing to see here.

    2. Cian

      If you look at the counties where Casey did best (30%+):
      Tipperary, Roscommon–Galway, Limerick County, Galway East, Donegal, Longford–Westmeath, Offaly, Mayo, Laois

      and compare to the (Census 2011) counties with highest Traveller population densities:
      Longford, Galway, Offaly, Mayo, Wexford, Westmeath, North Tipperary, South Dublin, Laois

      There is a definite correlation.

      1. McVitty

        yeah, the forgotten mid-west…that is every expanding into Clare, Kerry, Cork. Nice to see there is no notion of two Irelands.

  2. Knocka Boi

    Wow. The establishment is rattled. You can tell by the extreme nature of their lies – from which a strange kind of truth may emerge.

    “Imagine if [he] went on about how we were forced to pay for banks, how we had to ‘control’ immigration, how the EU is taking power from the people (insert your favourite complaint here). What might his support have been?”

    But these aren’t just complaints Michael Taft – they are facts, facts the establishment would rather we forgot. And don’t forget it was Higgins who signed the Anglo Irish Resolution Bill (in the dead of night) to give legal effect to the unlawful actions of a drunk parliament. (How many billions?)

    How Effing progressive was that?

    “the winner was already known, people could vote with few consequences [for the establishment]”

    The election and the media supporting it were in the bag for Higgins from the get go. [No polls to tell us how Casey was resonating.] RTE debate moderator refusing to let him remind Higgins of Higgins’ own One-term promise.

    Taft and his buddies are rattled. Their lies and spin don’t work anymore. They are now resorting to stealing elections and gerrymandering public discourse in full view of everyone. Their days are numbered.

    Bye Bye.

  3. Nigel

    A millionaire deciding (by accident – so very Irish) to push divisive messages is far more emblematic of the underlying cause of the rise in this sort of thing and the difficulties in meeting the challenge than anything else.

    This is the second Broadsheet think piece on this subject that ignores the massive wealth of plutocrats pushing these messages as a factor in their rise across the globe AND the effectiveness of the Repeal movement in promoting a progressive cause.

  4. Stan

    I’m sure you’ve done it before Michael, but now might be the time for a rebuttal of the ‘people who pay for everything’ line. Plain fact is, the middle-class PAYE taxpayer – doubly so if a couple – gets a lot more from the state in terms of transfers/ free stuff than the supposed scroungers. Those who stay in education -state funded for the most part – get a huge premium in terms of income, those with private health insurance get privileged access to state funded services that the rest of us pay for, drivers get far more in terms of free roads built just for them than the user of public transport, and so on….

    1. Owen C

      “Plain fact is, the middle-class PAYE taxpayer – doubly so if a couple – gets a lot more from the state in terms of transfers/ free stuff than the supposed scroungers.”

      This seems to deliberately ignore how much middle class PAYE taxpayers actually pay in tax, and how much they pay vs how much they get out. If you don’t have an income, or if you’re income is so low to keep you out of the tax net, you cannot by definition pay for any publicly provided services other than via the VAT on the money you spend. So if middle class taxpayers aren’t actually the people who pay for everything (something you said needs rebuttal), than who is??

      1. Stan

        ‘other than VAT’ – AFAIK, people outside the income tax net can pay a higher portion of their income in indirect taxes than the well-off.
        BTW, I’d recommend Richard Murphy’s the Joy of Tax to anyone who thinks there’s a necessary link between ‘paying for stuff’ and tax.

        1. Cian

          I find this difficult to believe.
          The ‘squeezed middle’ are paying income tax… and then they pay VAT on what is left. I can’t see any scenario where this would not be the case.

          I could possibly see a scenario where a high-worth individual manages this – but only because they employ accountants. But they aren’t middle class.

          1. Stan

            Which is why I said the well off.
            I’m disputing the idea that the poor get everything for nothing whereas the not particularly squeezed middle pay in more than they get out: yes, they pay more, but they also get more back, whereas the poor pay more than you might think and get less in return.

          2. Rob_G

            I would have thought that people on lower incomes would spend a higher proportion of their money on food, which is zero-rated. Short of spending all of their money on cigarettes and diesel, I don’t see how they would be proportionally contributing more to the state coffers.

          3. Cian

            But we are talking about the middle classes.
            How do you define ‘well off’? Because, outside a handful of millionaires – in rather strange circumstances – I can’t see anyone else paying a lower portion of their income in indirect taxes than the “supposed scroungers”.

            I’m not sure where you are going with the rich get more out argument. *someone* is paying a lot more in than they get out. And that someone is the top 10% of earners.

          4. Stan

            I think you’re both overlooking one thing here: income tax doesn’t pay for everything, nor does income tax +VAT. Income tax is about 32% of the tax take – high by OECD standards, but our social security contributions are low. Our take from corporation tax is average as a proportion of the take, but, as we know, as a proportion of revenues from corporate activities, it’s low. At any rate, no one tax pays for ‘everything’.
            Overall though, the tax to GDP ratio (with the usual caveat about that figure) is unusually low. We are by no means a high tax society, nor are the level of social transfers unusually high. The sense of the supposed middle paying for everything probably comes from the relative high portion of the tax take coming from PAYE (and the Sindo ranting about it). I work most of the time in the UK and pay tax here, and yes, my IT is lower than it would be at home. But add in 100 per month on council tax, and about 50 on water, plus higher taxes on fuel (if I drove) and lower wages, driven down by – at least in part – lower social welfare rates and in work transfers, and I’m more than a bit worse off than if I was doing the same job in Ireland.

          5. Cian

            Fair point Stan, but all those extra taxes you mention (excluding corporation tax) are paid by the general public. The more disposable income you have, the more tax you pay. Property tax, CGT, Stamp Duty, excise duty are being paid by the squeezed middle – not the “supposed scroungers”

          6. andy

            You see this myth (poor people pay higher proportion of their income in indirect taxes) is based on NERI analysis of the CSO’s Household Budget Survey. It’s often quoted but rarely ever actually in detail.

            What the CSO does is every 6 years or so, it takes a decent sized sample (5,891 in the case the Neri paper is based on – data from 2009-2010) and asks the households to calculate their total income & expenditure.

            This sample size is then split into deciles based on gross income with the Top decile (10) having average gross income for €154,966 and the Bottom decile (1) having average gross income of €9,857.32.

            Now the problem with this, is the survey also includes expenditure. And the average expenditure is higher than average gross income from the 1st 3 deciles and higher than average disposable income from the 4th decile too. So effectively 40% of households are spending more than their income. There is no correction for this or analysis of why this is happening. The bottom decile are spending €18,500 but only have income for €9,900.

            What NERI and others do, is then take the estimated tax paid on that elevated expenditure and divide it by the low average incomes. So what does this mean.

            If you’re retired and getting a meager pension but have lots of cash in the bank then you might be in the bottom decile for gross income. So you’re spending 20k per year but your pension is only 10k but you don’t care cause you got a 150k lump sum or something.

            Or you’re a student who is paying rent and everything during the year and only work a few months of the year and either you’re getting a loan or are getting money from your folks. That puts you in the bottom decile.

            Or you’ve recently lost your job but have savings and are using those savings to meet your needs in anticipation that you’ll get a job again soon. Or you’re simply running up a large credit card & overdraft bill.

            So what is the composition of the Bottom Decile – well for a start it only has an average household size of 1.34 persons. 18% are retired, 19% are unemployed, 22% are in education (14% in 3rd level) – only 4% of this group is an employee & 6% are self-employed so <10% are total employed. Only 12% of the households here have someone at work & 22% of households are all retired. The average age in this decile is 54 years & over 50% are over 55 years. The total direct income of decile one per week is only €30 per household with state transfers accounting for €159 for a total of €188 for a total of €188 per week. As unemployment assistance & all the other payments you get from the state are way higher than this (Rent Allowance, fuel allowance etc) there is something going on with this income figure. So what you have here is a load of old people and people in 3rd level & unemployed. None of these are high income groups.

            This is even a very different composition to the 4th decile which is also spending more than it earns – the 4th decline has an average household size of 2.7 persons with 27% in education but only 4% in 3rd level (so lots of kids), 16% unemployed / 23% employed, 11% retired. In the 4th decile 53% of households have someone at work and 17% are retired. The average age in this decile is 47. Only 33% are over 55 years. Total direct income for this group is €250 per household with state transfers accounting for €313 for a total of €563 per household. So what you have here is lots of families with kids but not making a huge amount of money.

            Compare both of these deciles to the 10th decile where the average household size is 2.8 persons with 25% in education but only 5% in 3rd level, 58% of persons are employed and only 2% are unemployed.99% of these households have someone at work with most (83%) having 2 or more people at work. 63% of persons are aged 35 years to 54 years (prime working age), 93% of all people in these households are employed & only 4% are retired. Total direct income for decile 10 is €2,800 while state transfers are €96 (€39 of this is child benefit).

            So there is definitely a composition issue which is no corrected for – there's no explanation as to why expenditure for decile 1 is twice their incomes. So if you're calculating indirect taxation which is based on expenditure but comparing it to income then obviously you'll have a high impact as the total expenditure is twice the total income. Fags & booze accounts for 6% of Decile 1 expenditure but 12% of their gross income. Fags & booze are the highest taxed products so at clearly a high proportion of their spend then there is obviously going to be a problem. The NERI Vat estimate also seems to overestimate total VAT take by 13% which while not ideal, given the impact of VAT on Decile 1, this is a problem.

        2. Owen C

          You mix “middle class PAYE” with “well off”. Even ignoring the definitional issues of being both middle class and well off, a large chunk of the middle class would not describe themselves as “well off” on a disposable income basis. Which is entirely the problem here.

  5. Col

    He started out proposing harnessing the power of the diaspora. Nobody cared.
    He moved on to “influencing” the government about “business”. Nobody cared.
    Then he criticised travellers, the media blew up and people loved his “refreshing” and “honest” approach in a world of PC gone mad.
    Once he has to actually think about any actual policies, he’ll find it a hell of a lot more difficult to gain traction.

  6. Liam Deliverance

    Had he won the presidency I doubt he would have done a thing about the “Traveller Issue” or any other issue for that matter. It would have been sound bites, junkets and a lot of nothing else. He now has a possible political career with FF or Renua although I doubt he wants anything like that where he might have to do a bit of work as opposed to chillin’ in the Aras for 7 years.

  7. Clampers Outside!

    A farmer in Guam had three generators robbed in the last couple of months, two in the last two weeks.
    Before the third robbery CCTV was installed and the theirs were ID’d.

    Yep, it was travellers. And no, it’s not an isolated incident.

    Those living in the country deal with this type behaviour a lot more than those in the city.
    And that’s where the 23% mostly came from.

  8. ScaryLady

    What is more “anti-politics” than an elected representative – in this case Richard Boyd Barrett – saying on television that he wouldn’t bother to vote in the presidential election? That’s the kind of apathy and cynicism that lets in the likes of Trump. Absolutely terrifying.

  9. ralph

    The real reason for this outcry is that so many voted for a man who said what many think
    The reality is the election was a joke
    It reminded me of something out of north Korea where all candidates had to be endorsed by the state
    So we were never goin to see anything but a rigged election
    As in no field
    Maybe it was deliberate to ensure who got elected had no competition
    But saying all that the people spoke and many do regard travellers as second class citizens
    The US have their Indians
    The Indians have their untouchables
    The Australians have their aborigines
    South Africa had their blacks
    We have our travellers tinkers itinerant’s or what ever derogatory term we call them
    Its also much the same in the UK with what they call pikies
    Its time we woke up to the fact that we preach but we live in a glass house

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