Saturday, July 13, 2019

From Enlightenment to “Enfrightenment”: Romanticism as a Tool for Elite Agendas

Introduction

Romanticism is an eighteenth century artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement which emerged as a reaction to Enlightenment ideas of science, reason and human progress. Its effect on politics has been to reassert conservative ideas about society based on hierarchy and individualism as the Romantics looked back to medieval times and monarchism for inspiration. Enlightenment ideas focused on the laws as a counter to monarchical privilege and looked to concepts of citizenship and republicanism as the way forward, ideas which were taken up by workers movements the world over. However, Romantic ideas of the exclusivist nation are coming to the fore again in a world altered by the positive and negative effects of international worker mobility, immigration and desperate refugees.


The Enlightenment and politics – ‘You were, crucially, a citizen, not a subject’
In the early 18c in Europe the power of the monarchical system began to wane and enlightenment ideas about the running and ruling of society began to take hold. Those ideas focused on the idea of the ‘patrie’. Like many enlightenment ideas, patria was a word derived from pater [father] from ancient Rome and would later be equated with republicanism. Louis chevalier de Jancourt (the biographer of Leibniz) wrote in the the Encyclopédie that patrie “represents a father and children, and consequently that it expresses the meaning we attach to that of family, of society, of a free state, of which we are members, and whose laws assure our liberties and our well-being.” [1] This new emphasis was based on equality of all before the law rather than on the narrow definitions of ethnicity used in definitions of the nation.

In the pre-modern polity, society was made up of separate feudal sovereignties that were at the same time local power centres. Different ethnic groups lived in insular, heterogeneous communities with local and agrarian independent economies. The economy developed as kingdoms expanded into other ethnic areas. The transition from ethnicity to nationhood happened when the members of different ethnic groups developed a common culture making them into a ‘nation’.
However as Anthony Pagden writes:
“Unlike the nation, the patria was a community, a group. You owed it your love and your life, but you were also a part of it. You were, crucially, a citizen, not a subject.” [2]

Image on the right: Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755), generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French judge, man of letters, and political philosopher.


The patria was loosely connected to the concept of a republican government where the citizen, as Montesquieu wrote, would be asked to love the laws and the homeland (patrie) and that this love would require “continuing preference of the public interest over one’s own.” [3]
These ideas about the patrie have “come to be called modern civic patriotism. It was benign, generous, outward-looking, and in principle at least excluded no one”. [4] They can be seen as universal in that they described a form of politics, republicanism, that was not concerned with language, religion or ethnicity but with the idea that all were citizens and equal before the law.
Equality before the law is the principle that each person must be treated equally by the law (principle of isonomy) and that all are subject to the same laws of justice (due process). This principle arose out of the discontent that prevailed under monarchical rule whereby the king or queen was above the law, so that equality guaranteed that no one or group of individuals could be privileged or discriminated against by the rulers.
This principle was enshrined in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that:
“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.

Photograph of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848

Equality before the law is a basic principle of legal documents like the Irish Constitution, for example:
“All citizens shall be held equal before the law (Article 40 of the Constitution). This means that the State cannot unjustly, unreasonably or arbitrarily discriminate between citizens. You cannot be treated as inferior or superior to any other person in society simply because of your human attributes or your ethnic, racial, social or religious background.”
The universal aspect of such principles is an important aspect in that universalism accepts universal principles of most religions and is inclusive of others regardless of other persons ethnic, religious or racial background.
As an approach to ethnic difference in society, universalism is similar to instrumentalist approaches which accepts a minimal set of qualifications for membership of a community, unlike the primordialism of conservative nationalism which tries to fix exclusivist kinship, historical traditions and homeland of the ‘nation’.

The Romantic reaction – ‘from patriotism to tribalism’
It was in Germany that nationalism came to emphasise the ethnic basis of the nation with the ancient origins of the German language symbolising the German Volk stretching back into pre-history. In his essay On the Origin of Language [1772], Johann Herder argued for the national origin of language. He wrote,
“[i]t [the urge to express] is alive in all unpolished languages, though, to be sure, according to the degree of each nation’s culture and the specific character of its way of thinking.” [5]

La République universelle démocratique et sociale, painted by Frédéric Sorrieu in 1848. Top left: Le Pacte, Top right: Le Prologue, Bottom left: Le Triomphe, Bottom right: Le Marché. He was notable for his works testifying the liberal and nationalist revolutions in France and in Europe.

Herder’s influence could be seen in the widespread cultural and linguistic movements that swept Europe from the 1780s to the 1840s. Influenced by the Romantic Movement, the cultural nationalists emphasised the volksgeist of the peasantry as the true basis of the nation. Language became the target and the site for conflicting political ideologies as definitions of the nation were formed on ethno-linguistic grounds.

However, the early nineteenth century also saw the rise of workers movements such as the Saint-Simonians and Fourierists in France and the Chartists and Owenites in the United Kingdom. The industrial revolution had caused a profound change in the social and economic make up of society internally which resulted in the creation of self-conscious classes and heightened class antagonism.
Thus the workers movements took Enlightenment ideas of equality to their logical conclusion in the form of class struggle and social revolution while the Romantics looked to the peasantry for their ideal, reasserting the primacy of the older vertical structure of society (containing all classes).
The rise of nationalism saw the growth of exceptionalism as ethnic exclusivity became the norm. Under the influence of Romanticism and ideas of ethnic purity, and in parallel with the rise of the centralised nation state, the ethnic homogenisation of the populace meant the (near) destruction of indigenous local languages and local foreign language communities.

For example, there existed in France about thirty patois or popular Romance languages. In A Cultural History of the French Revolution, Emmet Kennedy describes a report to the Convention on 16 prairial Year II (4 June 1794) where the abbé Grégoire lists the extensive range of patois, dialects and languages in France as “Bas-Breton, Bourguinon, Bressan, Lyonnais, Dauphinois, Auvergnat, Poitevin, Limousin, Picard, Provençal, Languedocien, Velayen, Catalan, Béarnais, Basque, Rouergat, and Gascon.” According to Kennedy, “[o]nly about a sixth (fifteen) of the departments around Paris spoke French exclusively. Elsewhere bilingualism was common.” [6]
Yet, in another report to the Convention in 1794, Barère links the areas where “foreign” languages are to be found, such as Basque, German, Flamand and Breton, with the areas of insurrection and counterrevolution. Barère writes,
“[f]ederalism and superstition speak Bas-Breton; emigration and hatred of the Republic speak German; counterrevolution speaks Italian, and fanaticism speaks Basque. Let us break these harmful instruments of terror.” [7]
In post-revolutionary France linguistic redefinition took on serious political overtones as the question of self/other was redrawn along linguistic lines. Already the interests of the state were taking precedence over the rhetoric of the democratic nation.



Image on the left: Nur für Deutsche (Eng. “Only for Germans”) on the tram number 8 in occupied Kraków


Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) took exceptionalist and chauvinist ideas of the nation even further. He wrote:
“the German, if only he makes use of all his advantages, can always be superior to the foreigner and understand him fully, even better than the foreigner understands himself, and can translate the foreigner to the fullest extent. On the other hand, the foreigner can never understand the true German without a thorough and extremely laborious study of the German language, and there is no doubt that he will leave what is genuinely German untranslated.” [8]
Fichte, like Herder, shifted cultural value from the elites to the common people (volk). According to Tim Blanning in The Romantic Revolution:
“Folk art, folk dancing and folk songs were not to be despised for their roughness but treasured for their authenticity. They were the ‘archives of a nationality’, the ‘ national soul’ and ‘the living voice of the nationalities, even of humanity itself’.” [9]
The Romantics promoted popular ballads which had been seen as “the dregs of fairy-tales, superstitions, songs, and crude speech”. [10] Of particular note was the Ossian cycle of epic poems published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson from 1760. The work was an international success and was translated into all the literary languages of Europe. Even though Ossian was soon realised to be a creation of its author and not from ancient sources it was highly influential both in the development of the Romantic movement and the Gaelic revival.
As in other forms of culture the Romantics emphasised all that was backward-looking and medieval in opposition to Enlightenment figures who had tried to create a new culture based on reason and science. Moreover, Romantic folk culture was very different from working class culture which developed during the Industrial Revolution. With the influence of socialist ideas and movements over the following decades, working class authors and poets produced many fine poems, ballads and novels about the struggles of ordinary people.
It is interesting to note that in the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century, the cultural elites of Europe were more interested in French than their own languages and went on the Grand Tour of Europe to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography, and culture.
Also, it is ironic that the  the thrill of romanticism often came from the safety of modernity (in the form of enlightenment science) as the development of steamboats and railway systems allowed the new middle classes to experience the sublime in the beauty of dramatic landscapes like the Alps.

Nationalism – ‘countering the worst excesses of neoliberalism’
The influence of Romanticism on politics shifted revolutionary thinking from burgeoning socialist movements to nationalism instead. Nationalism is the perfect class conciliatory ideology in that it retained the full social order/hierarchy (i.e. it includes the elites) and homogenised the people by excluding other national languages and foreign communities while putting the elites into positions of leadership and control.
Using divide and rule tactics and stirring up xenophobic attitudes and fears, the elites ran the new homogenised nations and used them for their old purposes: war. Modern global power struggles of the twentieth century started with nation set against nation in the First World War.



A postcard from 1916 showing national personifications of some of the Allies of World War I, each holding a national flag

Throughout the twentieth century the rise of globalism and neoliberalism led to a breakdown in nationalist ideology as the world became more and more economically interconnected leading some to believe that we had moved on to an era of postnationalism. However, postnationalism is an internationalistic processs whereby power is partially transferred from national authorities to supernational entities like the European Union. Power is transferred from local elites to the super elite of the European Commission.
However, nationalist sentiments are still used to allow elites to consolidate power and new nationalist movements have risen in many parts of the world as people turn to local elites to try and counter the worst excesses of neoliberalism. This has led to Hindu nationalism in India, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and “America First” campaigns, the United Kingdom’s Brexit, anti-immigration rhetoric in Hungary, Germany’s Pegida, France’s National Front, and the UK Independence Party.



Douaumont French military cemetery seen from Douaumont ossuary, which contains remains of French and German soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun in 1916

Conclusion
Romanticist sentiments are still used and manipulated to keep the masses on board with the agendas of the elites thereby diverting people away from questioning the social and political systems under which they live and work. As the global economic and financial crises deepen there is the worrying possibility that more and more people will be dragged into the national and international power struggles of elites rather than examining and fighting for their own social, economic and political interests, i.e. a revival of political and social consciousness.



Notes
[1] The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015)  p259
[2] The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015)  p259
[3] The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015)  p260
[4] The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015)  p261
[5] On the Origin of Language: Two Essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried Herder (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) p149.
[6]  A Cultural History of the French Revolution by  Emmet Kennedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 325-6. See also Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 by  Eugen Weber (London, Chatto & Windus, 1979) p326
[7]  A Cultural History of the French Revolution by  Emmet Kennedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 325-6. See also Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 by  Eugen Weber (London, Chatto & Windus, 1979) p326
[8] Addresses to the German Nation [1808] by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, trans. R.F. Jones and G.H. Turnbull (Chicago and London: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922) p130
[9] The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning (Phoenix, Great Britain, 2010) p119
[10] The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning (Phoenix, Great Britain, 2010) p120
All images in this article are from Wikimedia Commons


 Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.




Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Catholic Church and the Constitution



The political aspect of the 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann or Constitution of Ireland is usually avoided in analytical writings on the constitution and emphasis tends to be on the social teaching of the church. This essay sets out to explore the language used in the 1937 Constitution to demonstrate the fundamentally political nature of the underlying philosophy of the Constitution.

While the 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann recognised the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Society of Friends, the Jewish congregations and other religious congregations,[1] Article 44, 1. 2° declared that the state “recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the Guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens”.[2] The “special position” of the church was evidenced by the predominantly Catholic influence and teachings on moral issues such as divorce, contraception and abortion influenced by the Rerum Novarum and the updated Quadragesimo Anno.

[On 5 January, 1973, the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1972 removed from the Constitution the special position of the Catholic Church and the recognition of other named religious denominations.]

The Church’s more active position on sexual morality contrasted with its lack of concern for families affected by emigration, mental disease, terrible family living conditions and “a demoralised working class, urban as well as rural.” As Lee points out:

"Few voices were raised in protest. The clergy, strong farmers in cassocks, largely voiced the concern of their most influential constituents, whose values they instinctively shared and universalised as “Christian”. The sanctity of property, the unflinching materialism of farmer calculations, the defence of professional status, depended on continuing high emigration and high celibacy. The church did not invent these values. But it did baptise them.”[3]


Catholic ideas on social movements and private property had originated in the Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labour), an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and were eventually to influence the content of the new constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, published in 1937. According to J. H. Whyte in Church and State in Modern Ireland 1923-1979, the Rerum Novarum was “a cautious document” but ruled out “some extreme courses”.[4] It asserted man’s right to private property in opposition to socialism while, at the same time, asserting the right of the state to intervene in the worst excesses of individualism such as exploitative working conditions. The statements regarding private property were defined along Lockean lines.

In the Rerum Novarum it is claimed that “when man thus spends the industry of his mind and the strength of his body in procuring the fruits of nature, by that act he makes his own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates ... it cannot but be just that he should posses that portion as his own, and should have a right to keep it without molestation.”[5]

The influence of Locke’s defence of bourgeois property in the Second Treatise of Government (c.1680) can be observed in the similar arguments he put forward on private property: “Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature had provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”[6] These ideas can be seen in Article 43, 1. 1° of the Constitution which states: “The State acknowledges that man, in virtue of his rational being, has the natural right, antecedent to positive law, to the private ownership of external goods.”[7] However, the encyclical, Rerum Novarum, was written about 210 years after Locke’s Treatises and did not reflect the profound changes in society caused by the industrial revolution. As Russell notes:

"The principle that a man has a right to the produce of his own labour is useless in an industrial civilisation. Suppose you are employed in one operation in the manufacture of Ford cars, how is anyone to estimate what proportion of the total output is due to your labour? ... Such considerations have led those who wish to prevent the exploitation of labour to abandon the principle of the right to your own produce in favour of more socialistic methods of organizing production and distribution."[8]

Yet, the Rerum Novarum states that “... it is clear that the main tenet of Socialism, the community of goods, must be utterly rejected” on the basis that, inter alia, “it would be contrary to the natural rights of mankind”.[9] Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937) Article 43, 1. 2° states: “The State accordingly guarantees to pass no law attempting to abolish the right of private ownership or the general right to transfer, bequeath, and inherit property.”[10]


Pope Leo XIII states that “God has granted the earth to mankind in general”[11] and Locke similarly claims that “... God, as King David says (Psalms 115:16) ‘has given the earth to the children of men’, given it to mankind in common.”[12] The contradiction implied in holding up the right to private property while claiming that the earth had been given to “mankind in common” left the Church open to criticism and which Pius XI endeavoured to deal with in the Quadragesimo Anno (Reconstructing the Social Order) published in May 1931. The main purpose of the Quadragesimo Anno was to update the ideas contained in the Rerum Novarum. In regard to private property, Lyons comments that “the over-riding concern was not to balance nineteenth century individualism against twentieth century collectivism, but rather to accord closely with Catholic teaching on the subject at that period.”[13]


Pius XI writes: “there are some who falsely and unjustly accuse the Supreme Pontiff and the Church as upholding both then and now, the wealthier classes against the proletariat”.[14] The product of surplus labour regarded by Marx as “wealth” and the capitalist as “profit” is described by Pius XI as “superfluous income” i.e. “that portion of his income which he does not need in order to live as becomes his station” and its use for “the grave obligations of charity” is insisted upon by the “Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.”[15] Pius XI opposes the principle “that all products and profits ... belong by every right to the working man” and advocates in its place a “just wage” or a partnership of workers and executives.[16]


Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937) Article 45, 3. 2° states: “The State shall endeavour to secure that private enterprise shall be so conducted as to ensure reasonable efficiency in the production and distribution of goods and as to protect the public against unjust exploitation.”[17] A wage should be sufficient for the workingman to be able to support himself and his family as “[m]others should especially devote their energies to the home and the things connected with it.”[18] Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937) Article 41, 2. 1° states: “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” Article 41, 2. 2° states: “The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”


The Pope advocates a “reconstruction of the social order”. It was the duty of the State “to get rid of conflict between “classes” with divergent interests, and to foster and promote harmony between the various “ranks” or groupings of society.”[19] Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937) Article 45, 2. ii. states: “That the ownership and control of the material resources of the community may be so distributed amongst private individuals and the various classes as best to subserve the common good.”[20] The Quadragesimo Anno document proposed, as an alternative to class conflict, “that the members of each industry or profession be organised in “vocational groups” or “corporations”, in which employers and workers would collaborate to further their common interests.”[21] The encyclical tried to find a middle ground between the vagaries of laissez faire capitalism on the one hand and the spread of socialist ideology on the other.


In 1933 Cumann na nGaedheal joined with the Blueshirts and the new Centre Party (formed out of the old Farmers” Party) to form the United Ireland party or Fine Gael with O’Duffy as leader and Cosgrave as parliamentary leader.[22] Of the three main political parties Fine Gael was the first to take on board the vocational ideology of the Quadragesimo Anno. Whyte notes that the main exponents of vocationalist ideology were two academics, Professor Michael Tierney of UCD and Professor James Hogan of UCC and General O’Duffy. While the establishment of agricultural and industrial corporations was written into Fine Gael’s programme, interest in the idea waned. After O’Duffy’s resignation in 1934 Fine Gael’s parliamentary opposition moved away from a state corporate order, even in the economic sphere.[23]


The Fianna Fáil government established a commission in 1939 to examine the “practicability of developing functional or vocational organisation” in Ireland under the chairmanship of Dr Browne, the Bishop of Galway. Even the Labour Party came under pressure of the Church’s social teaching as fundamental tenets of socialist ideology, such as the concept of a “Workers’ Republic” and public ownership, came under attack. In an amended constitution of 1940 the phrase “Workers’ Republic” was substituted with “a Republican form of government”, and the assertion regarding public ownership was rephrased as follows: “The Labour Party believes in a system of government which, while recognising the rights of private property, shall ensure that, where the common good requires, essential industries and services shall be brought under public ownership with democratic control.”[24] Thus, the Catholic Church became the catalyst for the homogenisation of mainstream Irish political ideology.


In December 1930 Pius XI published the Casti Connubii (Christian Marriage), a document also containing many of the ideas and principles later to be seen in the Irish Constitution. Issues such as birth control, abortion and divorce are dealt with in no uncertain terms. In a section on birth control, Pius XI asserts that:

“... consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence ... but by frustrating the marriage act. Some justify this criminal abuse on the ground that they are weary of children and wish to gratify their desires without their consequent burden.”[25]

In dealing with the abortion issue Pius XI appeals directly to the lawmakers of the land with threats of vengeance on those who ignore the Church’s teaching: “If the public magistrates not only do not defend them, but by their laws and by their ordinances betray them to death at the hands of doctors or of others, let them remember that God is the Judge and Avenger of innocent blood which cries from earth to heaven.”[26]

[On 7 October, 1983, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1983 acknowledged the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother]

[On 18 September, 2018, the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Act 2018 provided for the regulation of termination of pregnancy]

Divorce is denounced as one of the evils of “Communism”. Pius XI writes: “what an amount of good is involved in the absolute indissolubility of wedlock and what a train of evils follows upon divorce”[27]. Divorce is yet another example of “the unheard of degradation of the family in those lands where Communism reigns unchecked.”[28] Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937) Article 41, 3. 2° states: “No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage.”[29]

[On 17 June, 1996, the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1995 provided for the dissolution of marriage in certain specified circumstances.]

The political aspect of the Church’s thinking culminated with the Divini Redemptoris (Atheistic Communism) published on the nineteenth of March 1937, three months before Bunreacht na hÉireann was “enacted by the People”[30] on the 1st of July. The introduction describes the history of “Previous Condemnations” of “Communism” as early as 1846 when Pius IX described it as “absolutely contrary to the natural law itself” in Syllabus. The role of the Church is described as a “special” mission to defend truth and justice (the word “special” also describes the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the Constitution).[31] The Encyclical endeavours to explain communist theory and practice as essentially a “false messianic idea” and a “pseudo-ideal of justice and equality” which traps the multitudes with a “deceptive mysticism” and rejects, as a basic principle, “any link that binds woman to the family and the home”.[32]

The spread of Communism is attributed to the “real abuses chargeable to the liberalistic economic order” which has left workmen in “religious and moral destitution”.[33] In contrast, the Church restates the socio-economic ideas of the Quadragesimo Anno and calls on the parish priests to win “back the laboring masses”.[34] This was to be achieved through “the militant leaders of Catholic Action” whose object was “to spread the Kingdom of Jesus Christ” (e.g. An Rioghacht in Ireland) and would be trained through study circles, conferences and lecture courses before taking “direct action in the field”.[35] In the penultimate section of the encyclical entitled “Duties of the Christian State” the Church calls on States to recognise “the authority of the Divine Majesty”[36] (Article 44, 1, 1° of the Constitution asserts that: “The State acknowledges the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God.”) and insists that the State allows the Church full liberty to fulfil her divine and spiritual mission”.[37]


While it may be argued that the 1937 Constitution merely reflected the views and aspirations of a predominantly Catholic population or even, as Lyons contends, helped de Valera “steer between the Scylla of republicanism and the Charybdis of dominionism”,[38] however, the “invisible hand” of the Church steered state ideology into the safer waters of a Pax Hibernia for some decades to come.


Notes:
[1] Bunreacht na hÉireann [1937] (BÁC: Foilseachán Rialtas, n.d.) 144. Article 44, 1. 3° states: “The State also recognises the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland, as well as the Jewish Congregations and the other religious denominations existing in Ireland at the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”
[2] Bunreacht 144.
[3] Joseph Lee, Ireland 1912-1985 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 159.
[4] J. H. Whyte, Church and State in Modern Ireland 1923-1979. 2nd ed. (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1980) 63.
[5] William J. Gibbons, Seven Great Encyclicals (New York: Paulist Press, 1963) 4.
[6] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: J. M. Dent, 1993) 128.
[7] Bunreacht 142.
[8] Bertrand Russell,  A History of Western Philosophy (London: Counterpoint, 1984) 612-3.
[9] Gibbons 7.
[10] Bunreacht 142.
[11] Gibbons 4.
[12] Locke 127.
[13] F.S.L.Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine (Great Britain: Fontana, 1974) 546.
[14] Gibbons 136-7.
[15] Gibbons 139.
[16] Gibbons 144.
[17] Bunreacht 150.
[18] Gibbons 145.
[19] Gibbons 148.
[20] Bunreacht 148.
[21] Whyte 67.
[22] Lee 179.
[23] Whyte 80-1. See also Lyons 528.
[24] Whyte 83-4. See also Lyons 525.
[25] Gibbons 92.
[26] Gibbons 96.
[27] Gibbons 104.
[28] Gibbons 105.
[29] Bunreacht 138.
[30] Bunreacht, iii.
[31] Gibbons 178.
[32] Gibbons 180-1.
[33] Gibbons 182-3.
[34] Gibbons 200.
[35] Gibbons 201.
[36] Gibbons 204.
[37] Gibbons 205.
[38] Lyons 521.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Notes on Using Your Name in Gaelic

In Ireland using your name in Gaelic produces discussion and even difficulties of pronunciation despite the fact that Gaelic is compulsory in Irish schools, both primary and secondary levels. One reason is that Gaelic spelling was modernised in the 1940s and 1950s. As an example, I like to say that Gaelic now has a more modern spelling than English, as the many extra consonants in Gaelic were reduced by using an accent. For example, ‘oidhche’ (night) was changed to ‘oíche’ (unlike in English where the extra consonants were not changed from ‘night’ to ‘nite’ as the Americans use).
In my surname ‘croidhe’ was changed to ‘croí’ but like in many Gaelic surnames the old spelling is retained. So Croidheáin is believed to be ‘croidhe’ (heart) and ‘áin’ (noble), (noble heart) and is a word still used in Donegal Gaelic-speaking areas for a gallant or a suitor. It is pronounced ‘kree-an’. In other words, like in ‘night’ most consonants are not pronounced or at least have a different sound to English. For example ‘mh’ is pronounced with a ‘v’ sound so you get ‘caoimh’ pronounced ‘keev’. Caoimhghin is ‘caoimh’ (fair/gentle) and g(h)in is ‘birth’ similar to the Greek ‘gen’ (birth) and pronounced in Gaelic as ‘keeveen’. I have seen on an old map from the 1800s a church rendered ‘Kilkeevin’ (Church of St Kevin, Co. Roscommon) showing that the phonetical link between caoimhghin and kevin was retained until it lost an ‘e’ and became kevin.
My father was Kevin Cryan (like me) but Gaelic speakers in Ireland use their names in Gaelic unlike most of the population who have Gaelic names (and learned Gaelic in school) but speak in English (like my father). The phonetical spelling of Irish names and places was carried out by an English colonial administration who spoke no Gaelic and wrote down what they heard. As a result, for example, with my surname I have found three phonetical variations (Crean, Cryan and Crehan depending on local accents) and over 40 different spellings.
Ireland is a mainly Anglophone population today and with Brexit will become (ironically) the only English native-speaking population in the EU. There are Anglo-Saxon elements alright in Ireland but like Scotland, Wales and Cornwall (all Celtic areas) were invaded by the Normans and Anglo-Saxons.
Gaelic is one of two official languages and legally Gaelic takes precedence over English which means I can use the original Gaelic version of my name (even on my passport) without having to legally change it. For those who come to Ireland to learn English, be warned – Irish people speak Hiberno-English which means that our English retains some words, syntax and expressions from the Gaelic language. For those interested in this see How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads by Daniel Cassidy which may be a bit over the top but not fully contradicted either. There are even dictionaries of Hiberno-English.
The struggle to make Gaelic the common language in Ireland is still ongoing, and, indeed I have Irish Gaelic-speaking friends who refuse to speak to me in English. As a minority language Gaelic is not in a bad shape with Gaelic-medium schools, television, radio, press, websites and even Google translate.
The word Irish is generally used in Ireland for the Gaelic language to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic, its linguistic sister (“Scotland” comes from Scotti, the Latin name for the Gaels).

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

NATO and the Culture of War: Ireland's Resistance


70th anniversary of NATO


This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949. Established as a peacetime alliance between the United States and Europe to prevent expansion of the Soviet Union, NATO has grown in size and changed from a defensive force to an aggressive force implementing Western policies of expansion and control.

NATO now has 29 members ranging geographically east to west from the United Kingdom to countries of the former Soviet Union and north to south from Norway to Greece. NATO's intervention in the Bosnian war in 1994 signaled the beginning of a new role for a force effectively made redundant by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then NATO has escalated its presence on the international scene taking on various roles in Afghanistan in 2003, Iraq in 2004, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in 2009 and culminated in the bombing of Libya in 2011 with '9,500 strike sorties against pro-Gaddafi targets.'

The main argument for the existence of NATO was for it to be a system of collective defence in response to external attack from the Soviet Union. Although during the Cold War NATO did not carry out military operations as a defence force, its changing role has now implicated its members in a culture of aggressive war which they had not originally signed up for.

For former colonial powers the NATO culture of war on a global scale is nothing new. The geopolitical agendas of expansionism for Western elites that NATO serves is the modern form of the colonial adventures of the past which have long passed their sell-by date. The culture of war which passes for 'the white man's burden', 'bringing freedom to other countries' or 'saving them from communism' legitimizes aggressive action abroad while giving a sense of pride at home of a worthwhile military doing a great job. 

War as a means to an end and war as culture
The culture of war then is different from culture wars (e.g. competing forms of culture like religion). Since the Enlightenment, war has been described as a means to an end, serving essentially rational interests. The benefits of war at home like ending the feudal system, repelling invaders, etc. were seen to apply abroad too by helping others through systems of alliances, for example the Second World War alliance to end Hitlerite fascism. 

However, there are those who see war as an end in itself, as part of the human condition. Writers like Martin Van Creveld have argues that:

"war exercises a powerful fascination in its own right — one that has its greatest impact on participants but is by no means limited to them. Fighting itself can be a source of joy, perhaps even the greatest joy of all. Out of this fascination grew an entire culture that surrounds it and in which, in fact, it is immersed."

However, not all cultures of war are the same. Van Creveld conflates the culture of war of imperial nations with the culture of war of resistance to colonialism and imperialism. Britain's wars were fought for the benefit of British elites. But Ireland, for example, has a long history of opposition to British colonialism and Ireland's culture of war has similar symbols and traditions to Britain yet very different content. Over the centuries generation after generation of Irish men and women have taken part in wars of resistance to colonial domination. While the British culture of war may have been a proud culture of successful militarism, in Ireland it was a desperate fight for independence from an all-powerful enemy always willing to throw its vast armory into the fight against 'treachery to the King'.

In other words, the culture of war was imposed on a people as a way to survive military, economic and political domination. Which brings up the question of whether war really is a part of the human condition.

War and 'primitive tribes'
It has been a Romantic trope to look back to the 'primitive tribes' as a way of understanding our own society and how they may have looked before feudalism and the burgeoning capitalism's 'satanic mills' were set in motion. Yet, it is interesting to see the descriptions of 'primitive people' from our history books, as Zinn writes:

"When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. [...] These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing."

Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba, wrote:.

"They are not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings."

Their resorting to violence and killing was a form of defence which ultimately failed:

"On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.[...] Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." Las Casas tells how "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys." The Indians' attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed."

Thus, we can see that while there was occasional violence against other tribes these tribes lived in peace until faced with the extreme violence of their invaders.

Development of warrior societies
Recent research in archeology seems to suggest now that we don't need to look to 'primitive tribes' abroad anymore but can see similar experiences in research on our own ancestors here in Europe and nearby regions.

In an article by John Horgan, Survey of Earliest Human Settlements Undermines Claim that War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots, he looks at the recent work of anthropologist Brian Ferguson, an authority on the origins of warfare:

"Ferguson closely examines excavations of early human settlements in Europe and the Near East in the Neolithic era, when our ancestors started abandoning their nomadic ways and domesticating plants and animals. Ferguson shows that evidence of war in this era is quite variable. In many regions of Europe, Neolithic settlements existed for 500-1,000 years without leaving signs of warfare. "As time goes on, more war signs are fixed in all potential lines of evidence—skeletons, settlements, weapons and sometimes art," Ferguson writes. "But there is no simple line of increase." By the time Europeans started supplementing stone tools with metal ones roughly 5,500 years ago, "a culture of war was in place across all of Europe," Ferguson writes. "After that," Ferguson told me by email, "you see the growth of cultural militarism, culminating in the warrior societies of the Bronze Age.""

It seems then that the history of the development of warrior societies and their enslavement of peaceful peoples is the basis for our cultures of war: the wars of those imposing slavery on people and the wars of those resisting.

The idea of an inherent human condition of war promoted by Van Creveld may be covering up for the felt need or desire for a culture of war to dissuade those who may be thinking of imposing slavery or dominance on a people, as a form of defence in an aggressive, militarized world, for example, the Jews in Nazi Germany .

The Irish people have a long history of resistance to British forces and Ireland's long experience of foreign aggression has led it to be wary of foreign military associations. Thus, today Ireland is still not a fully paid up member of NATO. In the nineteenth century the British used every form of simianism and Frankensteinism to depict the Irish people who had the gall to combine against them.

frankengorilla.jpg

Ridiculing resistance: "The Irish Frankenstein" (1882) and "Mr. G O'Rilla, the Young Ireland Party" (1861)

This all changed during the First World War when Britain desperately needed new recruits and issued posters now depicting a proud Irishman as a country squire. Guilt was the weapon of choice in these posters as Britain declared to be fighting for the rights of small nations like Ireland, who was not participating.

illgoyougo.jpg

WWI British Army Recruitment Posters: "Ireland "I'll go too - the Real Irish Spirit"" and "Ireland "For the Glory of Ireland""

Of course, after the war was over and the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein, won 80% of the national vote, the British government's reaction was to send in soldiers and criminals to put down the rebellion instead. This strategy failed, leading to negotiation and the signing of a treaty which led to the creation of Northern Ireland. 

pikeIRAman.jpg

Ireland's culture of resistance: the Wexford Pikeman by Oliver Sheppard and IRA Memorial, Athlone

Ireland and NATO
In 1949 Ireland had been willing  to negotiate a bilateral defence pact with the United States, but opposed joining NATO until the question of Northern Ireland was resolved with the United Kingdom. However, Ireland became a signatory to NATO's Partnership for Peace programme and the alliance's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1999.

In December 1996, the Peace & Neutrality Alliance (PANA) was established in Dublin. According to their website, 'PANA seeks to advocate an Independent Irish Foreign Policy, defend Irish Neutrality and to promote a reformed United Nations as the Institution through which Ireland should pursue its security concerns.'A wide range of groups and a growing number of individual are affiliated to PANA. This wide anti-NATO sentiment was reflected in the attack on US military planes in 2003. In February 2003 the Irish Times reported:

“The Army has been called in to provide security around Shannon Airport after five peace activists broke into a hangar and damaged a US military aircraft early this morning. It is the third embarrassing security breach at the airport where US military planes are refuelling en route to the looming war with Iraq.”

One anti-war activist Mary Kelly was convicted of causing $1.5m in damage to a United States navy plane at Shannon airport. She attacked the plane with a hatchet causing damage to the nose wheel and electric systems at the front of the plane.

In 2018 the First International Conference Against NATO was held in Dublin. The conference was organised by the Global Campaign Against US/NATO Military Bases which itself is a coalition of peace organisations from around the world.

However, there are still forces in Ireland pushing for full membership of NATO. A recent article in an Irish national newspaper stated that 'Ireland has been free-riding on transatlantic security structures paid for by American and European taxpayers since 1949' and that 'very few politicians think much about Ireland's security in any depth and even fewer believe we should join NATO. None is likely to provide grown-up leadership on national security.' A combination of realism and guilt that has been tried on the Irish people many times before and rejected. The writer recognises that 'few people advocate such a course and most are quite attached to the State's long-held position of military neutrality.'

Conference on the 70th Anniversary of NATO
Getting other nations to develop a similar attitude and leave NATO was the objective of the recent International Conference on the 70th Anniversary of NATO held in Florence, Italy, on 7 April 2019. During the conference Prof. Michel Chossudovsky (Director of the Centre for Research on Globalization) presented the The Florence Declaration which was adopted by more than 600 participants. The Florence Declaration was drafted by Italy’s Comitato and the CRG and calls for members "To exit the war system which is causing more and more damage and exposing us to increasing dangers, we must leave NATO, affirming our rights as sovereign and neutral States.

In this way, it becomes possible to contribute to the dismantling of NATO and all other military alliances, to the reconfiguration of the structures of the whole European region, to the formation of a multipolar world where the aspirations of the People for liberty and social justice may be realised." 

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Romanticism and the Rise of the Superheroes: Who Are the Saviours of the Oppressed?

 
Myth, Reification, Tradition, Modern


For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels.
— Paul Anka, My Way


Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.
— Lowell Mill girls protest song in 1836 strike.


The rise of the superheroes in cinema is demonstrated by the proliferation of superhero films today and is a phenomenon that is unprecedented in culture. Many superhero films are based on superhero comics while some are original for the screen, some are based on animated television series, and others are based on Japanese manga and television shows.
This essay will look at the history and origins of superheroes in Romantic ideas, comparing them to an opposing ideology of working class heroes who compete with superheroes for the attention of the oppressed masses who are to be ‘freed’ and/or saved, especially in the 20th century.

 According to Cooper Hood in Screen Rant:
2019 will be the year of superhero movies, seeing the release of a record-setting amount: a whopping eleven films. As the superhero movie craze continues, next year looks poised to be the prime example of how invested Hollywood as a whole really is. There’s the usual amount of Marvel movies, but increased output from Warner Bros. and DC, as well as some final Fox X-Men titles. All of these make up an astonishing ten confirmed 2019 superhero movies.
This is nearly double the 2018 output of six live-action superhero movies: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man & the Wasp, Venom and Aquaman.







Superheroes take their inspiration from earlier heroes such as Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel but the idea originates in Romantic ideas about heroes that save the world and the powers of the superhero.
Despite their designation as science fiction, superheroes have their ideological roots in the anti-science, individualistic philosophy of Romanticism.


What is Romanticism?
Romanticism is a movement in the arts and literature that emphasises inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual and originated in the late 18th century. It was also a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, and in particular, the scientific rationalization of nature — all components of modernity.
In the The Roots of Romanticism, Isaiah Berlin discusses the Romantic’s negative view of science:
The only persons who have ever made sense of reality are those who understand that to try to circumscribe things, to try to nail them down, to try to describe them, no matter how scrupulously, is a vain task. This will be true not only of science, which does this by means of the most rigorous generalisations of (to the Romantics) the most external and empty kind, but even of scrupulous writers, scrupulous describers of experience – realists, naturalists, those who belong to the school of the flow of consciousness, [e.g. Proust and Tolstoy] labour under the illusion that it is possible once and for all to write down, to describe, to give any finality to the process which they are trying to catch, which they are trying to nail down, unreality and fantasy will result.1
Thus the Romantics fundamentally oppose the general values and objectives of science and in particular Realist and Naturalist artists who use scientific knowledge or methods to develop their art. It goes without saying then that on a philosophical level scientific ideas about the progress of mankind are also rejected by the Romantics.


Batman and "The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)
[Thanks to Maya Nogradi]


This is because for the Romantics, “new abysses open, and these abysses open to yet other abysses.”1 However, scientists understand that new abysses open as they dig deeper into new levels of understanding. Yet, they are not afraid and they don’t throw up their hands in frustration or despair: they see these discoveries as new paths and concepts also to be explored fearlessly.
Berlin believes that one of the most influential writers against the science-based Enlightenment and who began the Romantic backlash was Johann Georg Hamann who believed, according to Berlin, that “the sciences were very well for their own purposes” but that:
this is not what men ultimately sought. If you asked yourself what were men after, what did men really want, you would see that what they really wanted was not at all what Voltaire supposed they wanted. Voltaire thought that they wanted happiness, contentment, peace, but this was not true. What men wanted was for all their faculties to play in the richest and most violent possible fashion. What men wanted was to create, what men wanted was to make, and if this making led to clashes, if it led to wars, if it led to struggles then this was part of the human lot.2
This view of violence and war as irrational chaos that cannot be controlled is also an element of superhero narratives which the superhero tries to overcome.


 
“The Reign of the Superman”, short story by Jerry Siegel (January 1933)


Superheroes: emotions over logic
These ideas of individualism, emotion, personalised motivations and cynicism towards the concept of a progressive society are all part of the Superhero psyche. Mason Woodard writes:
One of the first Romantic elements of Batman is his motivation. He is a vigilante, sometimes hunted by Gotham Police. But the reason Bruce fights crime even in face of the law is because a common criminal murdered his parents when Wayne was just a boy. The emotion of avenging his parents and stopping this from happening drives him far more. This is an example of emotions over logic, a Romantic idea. […] One component of Romanticism embodied by Superman is to trust your instincts and emotions before logic and reasoning. Superman will often be seen saving his love, Lois Lane, or a group of kids in the midst of a massive fight, even when a logical analysis tells you to sacrifice the people and finish off the baddie (even though Superman does win in the end).
Thus the personalised empathy of the superhero covers over the narcissism of a costumed attention-seeker.

The Golden Age and the Warrior
The Romantics looked back to the Golden Age of the autonomous, powerful warrior who looks after his tribe and is the earliest version of this idea – the peasant as noble savage.  The Golden Age denotes “a period of primordial peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During this age peace and harmony prevailed, people did not have to work to feed themselves, for the earth provided food in abundance. They lived to a very old age with a youthful appearance, eventually dying peacefully, with spirits living on as “guardians”.”

There may have been some material basis for the concept of a Golden Age. Old European culture, for example, is believed to have centred around a nature-based ideology that was gradually replaced by an anti-nature, patriarchal, warrior society when Europe was invaded by the Kurgan peoples from c. 4000 to 1000 BC. It was believed to have been a tumultuous and disastrous time for the peoples of Old Europe and may have led to the concept of the Fall. The idea of a fall, the end of a Golden Age, is a common theme in many ancient cultures around the world. Richard Heinberg, in Memories and Visions of Paradise, examines various myths from around the world and finds common themes such as sacred trees, rivers and mountains, wise peoples who were moral and unselfish, and in harmony with nature and described heavenly and earthly paradises.

The Romantic view of the Golden Age was a reaction to the contemporary slave-like conditions of the working class in factories and mills. Romantic rejection of modernity was rooted in this over-rationalisation of the worker and its affect on the human spirit. This rationalisation could be seen as the continuation of earlier slavery but in a modern day form as ‘wage slavery’.


 
Friedrich Nietzsche


‘Supermen’ or ‘Übermensch [Overmen]’
This modern slavery had a profound affect on Nietzsche who defined the first ‘Supermen’ or ‘Übermensch [Overmen]’ (super – Latin: over/beyond) as a goal humanity can set for itself. The Overman would be a new human who was to be neither master nor slave and all human life would be given meaning by how it advanced a new generation of human beings. Like Marx, Nietzsche recognised the social uses of religion to divert attention and action away from the exploitative nature of the social and economic system itself. The individualism of Nietzsche’s ideas also attracted the anarchists. According to Spencer Sunshine:
There were many things that drew anarchists to Nietzsche: his hatred of the state; his disgust for the mindless social behavior of ‘herds’; his anti-Christianity; his distrust of the effect of both the market and the State on cultural production; his desire for an ‘overman’ — that is, for a new human who was to be neither master nor slave; his praise of the ecstatic and creative self, with the artist as his prototype, who could say, ‘Yes’ to the self-creation of a new world on the basis of nothing; and his forwarding of the ‘transvaluation of values’ as source of change, as opposed to a Marxist conception of class struggle and the dialectic of a linear history.

 
William Bell Scott Iron and Coal (1855–60)


While Marx and the Anarchists had opposing views on the role of the state, what Marx did have in common with anarchist thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin was the belief that wage slavery was a class condition in place due to the existence of private property and the state. This class situation was based on the lack of direct access to, or ownership by workers of, the means of production.
Henceforth the working class took to the stage as social classes started lifting themselves up particularly in the aftermath of the revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the 20th century the battle was on for who would become the saviours of the oppressed – the fictional superheroes who fought crime or working class leaders who advocated social change? On a philosophical level the battle between Romanticism and Enlightenment ideas resurfaced between elite individualism and the opposing collectivist historical materialism of Marx.


 
James Connolly (1868 – 1916)


In Ireland, for example, the changing relationship between the master and the slave could be seen in the formation of the Irish Citizens Army (ICA) by James Larkin, James Connolly and Jack White on 23 November 1913. Connolly wrote of the ICA in Workers’ Republic in 1915:
An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.
James Connolly, an Irish working class hero, led the ICA into a failed uprising against British colonialism in 1916 and was executed by the British not long after. He was a self-taught scholar, a socialist, and an outstanding Labour leader of Ireland. While some may see the uprising as a failed Romantic gesture this could not be further from the truth from Connolly’s philosophical and ideological perspective.


 
Irish Citizens Army


Superhero reified
Ultimately the question has to be asked – do superheroes ‘save’ the people? Of course, they are symbolic heroic figures and so do not save anyone. Is it possible then to become a real life ‘superhero’? This idea is developed in the film Kick-Ass where a fictional ‘reification’ of the superhero concept happens. Kick-Ass “tells the story of an ordinary teenager, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who sets out to become a real-life superhero, calling himself “Kick-Ass”. Dave gets caught up in a bigger fight when he meets Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a former cop who, in his quest to bring down the crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), has trained his eleven-year-old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) to be the ruthless vigilante Hit-Girl.”

While initially Kick-Ass is constantly getting his ass kicked by thugs precisely because he does not have super powers, he eventually saves the day by arriving on the scene strapped to a jet pack fitted with miniguns and kills the remaining thugs. Thus, in the ‘real world’ Kick-Ass has to resort to ‘real weapons’ and falls into the normal superhero pattern of solving crimes with the usual extra-juridical killing and cathartic ending.

Problems of Romanticism
Overall then, there are different problems associated with superheroes, particularly from the point of view of the very people to be saved. At first, in an era of socio/political cynicism and helplessness in the face of poverty, corruption and crime, superheroes are cathartic as we purge our emotions watching the difficulties they have ‘solving’ our problems. In this way action is shifted sideways as we wait for a hero to arrive rather than being active ourselves.

Secondly, the ideology of superheroes comes from above, from elites, and not from below, from the masses themselves and therefore is directed towards the agendas of elites. Superheroes are bourgeois vigilantes who ultimately do not question the structure of society itself but merely try and solve the problems created by structural inequality.  Emotions are poured into superhero individualists who battle against crime while diverting attention away from questions of collective control of society and progress.

Thirdly, they represent the anti-logical emotionalism of Romanticism, itself a reaction to science and enlightenment. While described as science fiction, superheroes are given fanciful powers that have more in common with the ancient Greek gods than modern science.
To give them credibility in providing results for the struggling oppressed, superheroes must have super powers, (as people know you need more than an individual poor-man’s resources to battle against the system itself), ergo, the need ultimately for the superpower of working class solidarity and collectivist action to bring about real changes in society.

Notes
[1] The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (Princeton Uni Press, Princeton, 2013) by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor), John Gray (Foreword), p140
[2] The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (Princeton Uni Press, Princeton, 2013) by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor), John Gray (Foreword), p140
[3] The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (Princeton Uni Press, Princeton, 2013) by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor), John Gray (Foreword), p50


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.