Water and Power

CC by Airwolfhound

Two kinds of protest floating in my head tonight. The first, the Irish Water protests. The second, the complaints about the fluoridation of drinking water.

Despite appearing to both involve water, before today, I wouldn’t have said they had any shared root cause.

The Irish Water protest is a decentralised, grand coalition between people who believe a flat tax is a regressive social policy, those who resent the staggering arrogance and incompetence of Irish Water’s establishment and those who just don’t have any money spare to pay another tax, as well as all the personal variations outside those artificially defined positions.

Despite the strenuous efforts to claim, or ascribe, leadership by any pre-existing mainstream political group, the Irish Water protests have no single voice. There is no Chief Whip, no party line. The protests mean as many things as there are people participating. However, each side in this argument attempts to defeat the other with strength of their evidence – by presenting a case based on facts.

On the other hand, the people complaining about fluoride being added to our water to help with dental health are actively hostile to arguments based on facts.

(I am going to try to discuss something else entirely here, rather than try to assess the merits of any given position. But I should say that I think that complaining about something as beneficial as fluoride in our water is as far removed from a rational position as a person can go without actually advocating for demons to be given voting rights)

But after chewing in a ruminant fashion on an Aldi Stollen Bite this afternoon, I suddenly realised what the common element to both sets of protests was.

They exist because Fianna Fáil has collapsed.

Fianna Fáil, for decades, held the central position in the Irish political culture. As I have argued in the past, it functioned primarily as a patronage machine.

A patronage system is, by definition, unconcerned with the force of anyone’s argument or the facts they may have to show they are right. A patronage machine cares about who you are, whether you are inside or outside the patronage system, what you’ve done for the patronage machine and what you might yet do for it in the future.

For the people who might have expected to be beneficiaries of that machine, its sudden collapse represents a bitter blow to their conception of how things do, and ought to, work. Rows about fluoride are proxy battles for cultural resistance and resentment to the making of non-subjective evidence the basis for policy making.

But for all the people who were excluded from decision making- excluded from even the conversation about what was possible- the implosion of the Fianna Fáil patronage system has opened up a new political stage. One where matters are not already fixed before they reach the public gaze and where questioning, with hard evidence, can actually mean the answers can be changed.

Self-organised, decentralised political movements were once the stuff of science fiction and political theory. Now, the phones in people’s pockets give everyone the chance to voice, bear witness, organise and persuade.

Those phones are totems of fear for the traditional political/media establishment. And for the same reason they’re symbols of power for the people holding them. It’s why Joan Burton went out of her way to complain about protesters’ smartphones in the Dáil and why those complaints were so frequently referred to in the 1st mass anti-Irish Water march.

Both sides recognised the phones represent a rival power source.

So far, nobody has seen that power express itself fully. It may yet promote an appeal to the irrational. The fluoride flap is only a shadow of the problems that might throw up. But, for good or ill, it is now loose and it’s only a matter of time before it upturns the shell of the political system that died in 2011.

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