Way too clever for our scientific materialists

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I’m rather pleased to see that the Socialist Workers Party has put up podcasts of all the meetings at this year’s Marxism conference. This is an absolute godsend for those of us who like to keep tabs on the SWP’s thinking, but not to the extent of spending an actual weekend with the comrades. Anyway, I went on looking for Goretti Horgan on “raunch culture”, a subject I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while, but I couldn’t resist listening to the Big Debate.

If you’ve been to these conferences, you’ll know that the Big Debate is a ritual of the event. In previous years, the SWP liked to have Captain Eamo debating a Shinner. A couple of years back, the Socialist Party ran not one but two eye-catching debates at their weekend school, with Joe Higgins debating Sir Garret FitzGerald (Garret of course will debate anybody, but I couldn’t figure out what was in it for the SP) and Peter Hadden versus Eoin Ó Broin (now that one I would have loved to see, if only to find out who was the biggest liar). So, you always expect at least one big name.

The SWP scored big this year by getting in the Cleverest Man in Ireland, Pope’s Children author, Sunday Business Post columnist and all-round renaissance man David McWilliams, who was put up to debate class in the Celtic Tiger with Swiss Toni. What was striking, at least for somebody who isn’t an SWP member looking to have prejudices reconfirmed, is that Swiss, who is a clever bloke himself and no slouch at debating, comprehensively failed to lay a finger on McWilliams. McWilliams was at a clear advantage, not least because he has made an empirical study of modern Irish society and tried to describe it in its own terms. I don’t find his categories altogether convincing, but they hold up rather better than taking some facts about Ireland and squeezing them into the categories of Sasanach neo-Trotskyism mixed with a little dash of Weberian sociology.

Anyway, go and have a listen and come to your own conclusions. And, from the Socialist Democracy site, this review by Rayner Lysaght makes some telling points with a good deal less verbosity than the Great White Chief manages.

14 Comments

  1. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 23, 2007 at 8:38 am

    You’re too soft on the McWilliams lad. Apart from having a face that was made for slapping, his virtually unreadable book reads as if it was translated into English from the original Gibberish. Not only that, but a lot of the categories he employs appear to have been plagiarised from a book about ‘bourgeois bohemians’ in the states, so that his insight into contemporary Irish social reality may not be as brilliant as he (or you) thinks.

  2. ejh said,

    July 23, 2007 at 8:57 am

    I’ve not listened to the “podcast” (whatever one of them may be) as I lack the time, the inclination and presumably the equipment, but it does strike me that there’s always a problem about “class” which is that it’s extremely easy to say “well it’s not as simple as that”. Which of course it is not, not remotely. I’m sure there’s some letters of Marx on the subject to his mate whose name I forget (name began with K). It’s just that it’s the element that needs stressing because by pure coincidence it’s the one that so often seems to get denied, or just left out, with the curious result that the more unequal society becomes the less commentators seem to talk about “class”.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 23, 2007 at 9:16 am

    I think the big problem about McWilliams is that he writes in immense detail about consumption, and he’s very good on that, but production passes him by. The Irish economy is very weird even in Marxist terms, and I’ve yet to see an analysis that really nails it.

  4. Frank Little said,

    July 23, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Bit surprised at the reference to Eoin O Broin. I always got the impression that he was one of the very, very few Shinners who had a good reputation in the eyes of people outside the party, especially on the left.

  5. Ed Hayes said,

    July 23, 2007 at 9:32 am

    He also writes utter bullshit that gets passed off as a dynamic insight. Example; Cabra on Dublin’s north side is now known as ‘Fabra’ because of the amount of Gay and Lesbian residents. I’m sorry to have to tell you that if an out gay couple strolled into the Faussagh House pub expecting San Francisco in the 70s they would be sadly disappointed and unhappily also physically threatened. New York’s Chelsea it ain’t. But I can see some tool going ‘gee homosexuality was only decriminalised about 10 years ago and now their running the housing estates.’
    Thats McWilliams I’m slagging off by the way. I’m sure KA’s stuff is crap too.

  6. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 23, 2007 at 10:27 am

    I knew McWilliams was a wrong ‘un when he wrote a column for the Indo arguing that blacks buying business in inner Dublin would lead inevitably to US-style ghettoes and riots.

    Like I said: he needs a good slap.

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 23, 2007 at 11:17 am

    Eoin gets put up for these debates as a sort of token leftie. I knew him somewhat when he was living in Belfast and like him a good deal on a personal level, but he does have this eccentric view that Gerry is leading the working class to socialism. I’m not sure Gerry knows that.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 23, 2007 at 11:28 am

    As for McWilliams, sure he can be a bit of a balloon at times. But then he is a very clever balloon who does come up with the odd flash of perception. He also has the redeeming feature of not taking himself too seriously.

    What’s more, IIRC he never predicted in 1998 that the Irish economy was six months away from collapse.

  9. Ed Hayes said,

    July 23, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    Who predicted that it was? I do occasionally chuckle when reading McWilliams in a way I never do when reading Allen. Has anybody read the ‘Corporate Takeover of Ireland’yet? I find myself wanting to read it, knowing that I’ll agree with the general thrust ie. capitalism is bad, but fearing both the major factual errors that tend to pepper a Kieran Allen book and the heavy handed conclusion. Allen is sloppy and doesn’t really care that he is.

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 23, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    KA said something very much along those lines, though I don’t have the document in front of me. The SWP don’t talk about that hostage to fortune any more, in fact anybody who’s joined since 1999 probably won’t have heard of it.

  11. Mark P said,

    July 24, 2007 at 12:48 am

    I was at the debate between McWilliams and Joe Higgins a while back, which was frankly a little disappointing. It was entitled “is there an alternative to capitalism?” or something along those lines and it attracted a seriously large crowd – you had to buy a ticket and they still ended up turning people away. Higgins gave a good and impassioned speech but McWilliams didn’t really engage with Joe’s argument or the topic of the debate much. He was quite amusing in a sort of anecdotal way, but he didn’t really say very much.

    I’m not at all sure why O’Broin is considered a lefty, by the way. At the debate mentioned above he was pretty clear that socialism isn’t on the agenda and that he thinks the left are too obsessed with the working class, which struck me as a pretty odd line coming from someone who is pushed as a “left” face of Sinn Fein. That he supposedly represents a left wing of the Provos tells you more about SF than it does about him.

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 24, 2007 at 7:40 am

    Yes, I enjoy Joe as a speaker. McWilliams obviously isn’t a platform orator, but then that’s a dying art now, and you don’t often come by it outside the far left and traditional republicanism.

  13. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 24, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Not being a platform orator shouldn’t be a hindrance to actually engaging with your opponent’s argument.

    As for predicting the imminent end of the Celtic Tiger, a lot of people keep doing that and not only swappies. There was a thing in the Irish Times last year about how property bubbles burst which cited Finland as one guide to how the Irish situation might develop. What it left out was the small point that the Finnish economy was royally shafted in the early 1990s by the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of Finland’s biggest export markets.

    McWilliams maybe right (if I’m reading his rather peculiar prose correctly)about the decisive factor being Irish demography and the fact that Ireland had it’s baby boom a generation after the rest of the west, leading to the national economy being out of step with the rest of the world. But what happens when that demographic bulge finally moves through the system?

  14. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 24, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    The other thing about demographics is that the global recession of the early 1990s slashed emigration in such a dramatic way. At the time, the economists couldn’t imagine the Irish economy staying on an even keel without mass emigration. Isn’t hindsight wonderful?


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