Am I alone in my disappointment at how the centenary of 1916 is going? Certainly there is much to admire. The story of 1916 is being recounted in fresh ways, new areas of inquiry have been opened up. We know more about the role of women, more of the innocent bystanders, especially the children who were killed. The O’Brien Press’s impressive “16 Lives” series reminds us that sixteen individuals were executed after the rising. Where the focus had once been on the seven signatories of the Proclamation, now we have accounts of other leaders; their backgrounds and motivations. What is disappointing is the level of reflection. An opportunity to learn more of our present problems and predicaments is being lost. I do not suppose that the lessons of history are easily read or that it is the historians’ job to teach them. I do suppose that comparison is the best, if not the only way, to study society, culture, politics. Comparing the past with the present gives us a perspective not otherwise available. The material out of which to fashion the comparison is there. It just not being used.
In this post I adumbrate some of what we might expect to learn. My first point is the ‘otherness’ of 1916. The ideas that motivated the insurgents and shaped the judgments, positive and negative, passed on them are not alive today. The distinction between “mystique” and “politique”, between a politics of vision and a politics of power, made by the French thinker and poet, Charles Peguy [1873-1915] , is apposite as we gaze across the chasm that separates us from the lost world of 1916. I discuss that distinction and why Peguy supposed modernity eclipsed mystique.
In this post, I explore how Boltanski’s and Thevenot’s analysis of social life as movement among different ‘worlds’ or ‘polities’ can help us understand how we reflect on the problems and obstacles we encounter. These, inevitably, involve balancing the claims of different polities. B&T explain how we do this.
Everywhere we find individuals navigating in circumstances quite different from those that shaped the aims and purposes embedded in their routines. Think of family life. How many parents conduct themselves as their parents did? their grandparents? Think of politics. Can today’s generation understand their grandparents’ commitment to a political movement and the ties of loyalty that bound them to a political party and its leader? It is not just that the landscape – social, economic, political – has changed, it continues to change. And as it does, the tacit knowledge guiding action connects less satisfactorily with the world. Change is unavoidable.
Minister Pat Rabbite does not believe that the crisis reveals weaknesses in our design for democracy. One might have expected his left wing background to predispose him to structural explanations. Not in this matter: he opts for agency – the system was not the problem, Fianna Fail was. Nonetheless he does believe that the relationship between ministers and civil servants deserves examination. Senior civil servants were not held to account for their failures that contributed to the crisis because their responsibilities are not clearly spelt out. The Government agrees with him and is committed to legislation that will clarify relationships and spell out responsibilities. I suppose the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are working on that legislation. Perhaps the following will help them.