My lasting memory of my first ever visit to the famous Divinity department at Edinburgh University was not the great lectures I attended or the interesting students I met, but a banner that someone had hung on the gates facing the front door. It read: ‘Another World is Possible’. This was not an official initiative of the faculty, but it struck me as a superb slogan for all Theology colleges.
In the coming weeks, the Irish Government will propose that the Dáil embraces the Comprehensive-Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) which will remove barriers to trade between the EU and Canada and potentially boost exports, support jobs, and cement an international friendship. What’s not to love? Critics, which vocally included Eamon Ryan until very recently, point out that CETA, even in its modified form, establishes the right of multi-national corporations to sue our government if they introduce policies or laws which adversely affect profitability. These cases will not be heard in standard courts but through specially established tribunals modelled on international law.
It is easy to understand why there would be scepticism towards this agreement.
It is hard to understand why any environmentalist group would want to support it.
But the parliamentary Green Party does appear to be ready to back it. In an editorial in the Irish Examiner, Senator Pauline O’Reilly all but granted that the deal was horrendous but suggested that the realpolitik of the situation should hold sway. “Politics is the art of the possible,” wrote Senator O’Reilly, as she explained that a protest vote would be pointless since the agreement likely already has majority backing in the Dáil without the Green Party support.
If we take that thinking to its logical conclusion, there will be very few people at the next Fridays for Future march. After all, even with tens of thousands of teenagers on the streets demanding climate justice, progress hasn’t yet been made. It is a strange kind of anti-politics that suggests you only stand up for principles when you are certain they will prevail.
The JCFJ has written in the recent past about how a certain mood of realism, maturity, and pragmatism prevails in Irish political discourse. We say mood because it isn’t really a substantial political platform that seeks to get things done. It actually seeks to use language to ensure nothing really changes. We can see that it is not more than a rhetorical position because realistic, mature, and pragmatic politics in the midst of a climate and biodiversity catastrophe would, by definition, seek a radical break with the status quo. But the proponents of this political mood like to position themselves as decent and serious, in contrast to the recklessness and idealism of those in thrall to “ideology”.
Senator O’Reilly plays that card when she suggests that the Green Party should smother its very reason for being under the urgent demands of the moment as determined by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. She is no idealist who believes another world is possible. She suggests instead that the mature course of action is to make peace with the world we have and maybe build a few more cycle lanes.
The always fascinating Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek has an interesting reflection on this topic. He says:
And did you notice, when you talk about the possible and the impossible, how strangely this is distributed? On the one hand, in the domains of personal freedom and scientific technology, we are told that “nothing is impossible”: we can enjoy sex in all its perverse versions, entire archives of music, films, and TV series are available to download, space travel is available to everyone at a price. There is the prospect of enhancing our physical and psychic abilities, of manipulating our basic properties through interventions into the genome; even the tech-gnostic dream of achieving immortality by transforming our identity into software that can be downloaded into one or another set of hardware. What I’m saying is: everything is possible in technology. They even say that all diseases will be cured. The ultimate dream is the agnostic dream of technology that we will become immortal by changing ourselves into a software program, etc. Here, everything is possible.
But, on the other hand, in the domain of socio- economic relations, our era perceives itself as the age of maturity in which humanity has abandoned the old millenarian utopian dreams and accepted the constraints of reality – read: capitalist socioeconomic reality – with all its impossibilities. When you want to make some changes to the economy to give a little bit more for healthcare, they say: “No, it’s impossible. The market won’t allow it.” We can become immortal, but we cannot get a little bit more money for healthcare.
- Slavoj Žižek, Demanding the Impossible, p. 142-143.
“You cannot,” he says, “is the watchword.”
The banner facing the theologians as they left their work at the end of every day reminded them that another world was possible. The resigned voice that says standing up for what you know to be true isn’t worth it, does not tell the truth. At the JCFJ we know another, better world is possible. All our work bears witness to that reality.
The ideological commitment to never upsetting the 1% has been extensively explored and it has not worked. It does not benefit people, other creatures, or the environment itself. It is, in fact, the most immature and unrealistic of all positions to recognise that something is self-defeating and to continue doing it anyway.
Environmentalism is one of the few substantial ideologies left standing in Western politics. Environmentalists believe in something more than mere utility. CETA is an excellent opportunity not to “play senior hurling” but to testify to the fact that another, better world is possible. It should be rejected wholesale and replaced with a framework fit for the 21st century.
The fact of environmental collapse, not temporary political contingency, is the data that environmentalists are meant to work with. Bismark was wrong. Politics is not the art of the possible, it is the craft of making the inescapable conceivable.