Comment: Common sense politics are responsible for the crises we face

The economic and social right have a convenient explanation for why our institutions are rapidly deteriorating – a lack of common sense. No need to analyse the logic of a socioeconomic system that has brought record child homelessness, elderly patients languishing on trolleys and one in five young people skipping meals – the multiple overlapping crises Ireland faces can be fixed by electing someone with a bit of cop on.

As local and EU elections loom, Ireland is facing a plague of calls for so-called common sense. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have pledged to take a common sense approach to providing accommodation for international protection applicants, following a spate of arson attacks across the country. New right wing parties like Independent Ireland are calling for a return to common sense politics around issues like taxation, climate change and tightening Ireland’s borders. Many political commentators believe, on some level, that common sense must inform how Ireland is governed. 

But common sense looks suspiciously like almost everything that has come before.

The politics of common sense

There are few things more dispiriting than a politician arriving at my door bearing common sense.

Appeals to common sense have caused a lot of hardship. In the 20th century unwed mothers were placed in church-run prisons, their children later sold to American families, because the state asserted that laundries were effectively a common sense solution to problems with public morality. During the famine of the 1840s, the British ruling class maintained that free market policies, a lack of intervention in the economy, simply made sense, overseeing the deaths of roughly 1 million people. Mass suffering is almost always accompanied by invocations of that which everyone knows to be true.

Common sense justifications underpinned the project of austerity, the financialisaton of housing, and cuts to social services. “Common sense and pragmatism are needed concerning the best thing to do in providing hospital treatment and other health facilities for the people,” argued then-taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2012 during a Dáil discussion about hospital services reduced by Fine Gael and Labour. In 2015 Kenny insisted that common sense inform government’s approach to addressing homelessness, then roughly 6,000, less than half of what it is now.

Upon entering government in 2011, Fine Gael vowed to implement “common sense” solutions to fix the economy and “get Ireland back to work”. We all know what happened next.

The purveyors of common sense made the most vulnerable in society pay for an economic crisis that was brought on by the reckless behaviour of financial institutions. They saddled Irish taxpayers with debt that was not theirs to pay in the name of being “good Europeans.” They tailored legislation to suit the needs of property developers, not tenants. They cynically invoked victims of the Troubles when criticised by the opposition. They praised themselves for their decency while doing all of this.

And we are told Ireland needs yet more common sense. It must be at the heart of An Garda Síochána’s defective disciplinary processes. It must be used to address the chaos of post-primary school admissions. It must be accounted for when government helps small businesses

There is no need to look any deeper into these things – common sense shall prevail. As it always has.

A new common sense?

Polls suggest that candidates with “concerns about immigration” are increasing in popularity.

This is pushing establishment politics further to the right. Joining Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party in their calls for common sense are an assortment of reactionaries dubbed “the common sense right”. This includes parties like Independent Ireland, whose star candidate is radio presenter Niall Boylan, a man who has hosted debates about whether it’s acceptable to have sex with animals. They offer true common sense solutions, unlike the fake common sense solutions offered by the political establishment.

They don’t offer anything new – law and order, labour laws that favour business-owners at the expense of workers – bar proposals to treat asylum seekers even worse than we already do.

The common sense right aligns with government on every material issue of importance – from the ability of landlords to extract wealth from tenants to the belief that the profit motive should be a consideration in the provision of essential services. A minor difference: its politicians – people like Michael Fitzmaurice, Michael Collins and Richard O’Donoghue – are culture warriors who say things like “All Lives Matter” and spread the myth that Ireland has an “open borders” asylum policy. The common sense right: neoliberalism for people who have been radicalised by Facebook.

Learning how things are  

Calls for common sense are not a plea for sanity. They are a means by which undesirable ideas can be excluded from consideration. Characterising your own views as true because people just know it to be so means other perspectives are deemed illegitimate. For all its posturing about the value of debate, the political establishment has a clear position: feelings don’t care about your facts – ours is a politics of pure vibes.

Common sense does not represent universal truths – it is a product of our historical and social conditions. Capitalism and its custodians frame right wing assumptions about society as unquestionable because dictating common sense, the beliefs everyone in society takes for granted, influences our expectations about what is possible. The left – those who believe resources should be distributed to those who need them, not subject to market forces – needs to embrace reality, the way things are. We all know that socialism doesn't work. It’s just common sense at this point.

But this conception of reality has brought us to where we are. What we need, now more than ever, is a common sense that sees human beings as more than mere commodities: a common sense that imagines a better world – not one filled with hatred, suspicion and exploitation.      

Paulie Doyle

Paulie Doyle