The Blanket

Republicanism in the Age of Empire

Michael Youlton • Dublin, Sept. 2002

The germs of the thinking behind the article that follows were first planted after a careful study of a lecture Bernadette Devlin McAliskey gave in Rocky Sullivan's Pub, USA, on May 3, 2000. The title of her lecture was “The British Peace Process”.

Those germs took a more concrete form with the events following the attack on the World Trade Centre and the hysteria that followed, resulting in the massacre of the people of Afghanistan. Events that mirror themselves in occupied Palestine currently and threaten to engulf us with the reckless preparations and propaganda of invading Iraq.

Those ideas were further localised following the first Nice Referendum and Sinn Fein’s electoral success. And they finally took a more definitive shape in the current debate on the forthcoming second Nice Referendum, as concepts such as ‘sovereignty’, ‘globalisation’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘republicanism’ are bandied about to support both the pro- and anti-Nice positions.

And then there was a recent letter to The Blanket by Gary O’Dubhshlaine.

What does republicanism mean to me - in the age of Empire?

Is being a republican in Ireland today to think and act as if the peace process is the successful culmination of the 30-year struggle for self-determination, sovereignty, social justice and equality?

Is being a republican in Ireland today to look within the peace process and see it as the culmination of the success and just achievements, won again through hard struggle and sacrifice? And trying to build on that culmination by inserting yourself ever so deeper into the political game of the 32 Counties - always, of course, believing, or imagining, that you’re on the ‘outside’?

Is being a republican to claim ‘victory’ when you won the ‘right’, albeit constantly questioned, to assist the British government in administering British rule and sharing British power with the Unionists in the North of Ireland -or as much as the British would allow either to have.

Is being a republican in Ireland today to say that the peace process is the worst thing that has happened to us since we lost the 1798 Rebellion? Or, well not quite, but certainly since we lost the War of Independence; or perhaps, well maybe not quite, but certainly since we lost the Civil War!

Or perhaps is being a republican in Ireland today to oppose ‘globalisation’ and the ‘Nice Treaty’ because you argue they both pave the way for still another ‘barbarian’ invasion of hordes onto our shores leading to the destruction of the rights of the Irish working class and the corruption of our peoples’ morals?

Is being a republican in Ireland today, finally, to say

‘republicanism as a concept has moved on in its best form to recognize ..and incorporate equality for all citizens, for all human beings. And that kind of republicanism over the years has become socialist republicanism. And republicanism in crisis has only one of two ways to go…as a democratic ideology (it) will move towards socialism and equality or it will move towards nationalism’.
Bernadette Devlin McAliskey’s final paragraph in the speech quoted above.

Does republicanism have only two ways to go? Isn’t there a third way?

I will attempt to situate the debate elsewhere than Bernadette. I will begin from what I consider to be the most basic and fundamental historical element of republicanism the world over and in Ireland historically: The will to be against. For most people likely to read this article the will to be against should not require much explanation. Disobedience to authority is one of the most natural and healthy acts an individual can engage in right now - and Irish republicanism has a powerful history in this respect. It seems completely obvious to me that those who are pushed around, and exploited will and do resist and - given the necessary conditions - will and do rebel.

I can hear the voices already. I can hear the objections. I can hear them saying : ‘What does the will to resist, the desire to say no, have to do with republicanism?’ Or, ‘Oh, sure, they are all republicans now!!’

Others, more ‘objective’ may retort: ‘The problem is not why people rebel but why they do not!’ Otherwise put so sweetly by Wilhelm Reich: ‘Why do people fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were the salvation?

I come back to my initial point: if we momentarily accept that the most basic element of republicanism in Ireland to day is the will to be against, where and against whom do we direct this will - how do we determine in detail and exactitude the object, the target, can I say ‘the enemy’ against which to rebel?

Is it Unionism? Is it British imperialism? Or both? Fianna Fail perhaps? The PDs? Nice? London? Brussels? The big bosses? The Yanks ? Bush himself and his corrupt cronies? Blair? The Gardai? The UDA? The judiciary? The multinationals? The destroyers of the environment? Landlordism? Big capital? The Unions? The Internet? The Peace Process? Paisley and/or Trimble? The drunkard philandering and child-molesting husband? The PPF? Men in general? Dublin? Violence? Benchmarking? Or even Dana?

In contemporary Ireland, the content of this boxed paragraph, defines to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the standpoint of you, the reader, the Other Side. The precise configuration of that content leads to a variety of political positions founded on the dream of affirming our place in the world. Separate from the Other Side.

Yet, again in contemporary Ireland, this spatial configuration is changing - some would say has already changed. Capitalist relations and values have completely invested the entire social terrain, from the workplace to the office, from the Falls to Limerick’s New Dockland and beyond, from the GAA to the FAI and further. These paradoxical circles, however, are part of a situation where exploitation and control can no longer be localised. Domination has no longer a determinate place. And the dominated subjects, the brains, the minds and the hands, are also engaged in an activity, a living labour Marx would have said, which ,while remaining very powerful, has been transformed into an activity without focus. It takes place, it fucks us up but it cannot be spatially located. It is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously.

The identification of the opposition, therefore, is no small task given that control and exploitation tend no longer to have a specific address so to speak. Most people suffer alienation, powerlessness and exploitation - there are elements of command out there but we do not know where to locate the exact heart of oppression. Yet we resist and fight and struggle and rebel in our own ways. Whether we consciously consider ourselves republicans, or, as is the case with many, not!

How then does being a republican, or republicanism as a guiding ideology to liberation, help one decipher these logical paradoxes?

The contents of that indented and boxed paragraph above represents an inverted image - something we used to call a photo-negative before digital photography came upon us - of the productive and human world most of us dream of. It isn’t as if that power actually is capable of either frightening or disciplining us. Not in any direct sense. We’ve gone beyond that stage most of us.

But, we know in our skin, that it exercises command over us through procedures and when they fail its police/repressive apparatus. And that it constantly legitimises its control through its information networks. And this control on our flesh, the process of domination, has no form - in a strange kind of way there is really no place to hide. It isn’t just outside of us - we are against it in every place, we have internalised it.

This, I propose, transforms us into being(s)-against. To remind you that the first anti-fascist partisans in Europe, armed deserters confronting their traitorous governments, were aptly called against-men (no-uomini). Variants of beings-against we know were referred to in the past as Luddites, refuseniks or nihilists. We have become their post-modern children.

This is a crucial point - as we realise what we have been made to become, the very early republican principles of desertion, exodus and nomadism reform and reappear as a reflective necessity, a guiding light. These principles, well illustrated in the Irish history of the last four centuries, assume an immediacy today.

From a republican standpoint, you must oppose the content of that blocked paragraph above; and, most often, you are against it most effectively by adopting an oblique or diagonal stance - not direct opposition. You desert, you evacuate the places of power - instead of going in to either sabotage them or, hopelessly wishing, taking them over.

Exodus, that implies mobility and mass nomadism, is perhaps one of the most remarkable expressions of refusal, resistance and the search for freedom and new conditions of life.

Nomadism is also one of the most significant social phenomena of our times. If a spectre haunts the modern world it is not the one of communism anymore, but that of migration. All the powers of the old world are allied in a merciless operation against it, but the nomadic movement is irresistible. Nothing illustrates, in my opinion, the power of the nomadic horde than the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the ‘socialist discipline’ that was savaged by the nomads.

How do the above parameters situate our republicanism in Ireland today?

Numerous republican political projects in the past assumed mobility as a privileged terrain of resistance and organisation: from the Tuscan and Lombard artisans and apostles of the Reform who, banished from their own country, fomented sedition against the Catholic nations of the Renaissance; from Italy to Poland up to the 17th century sects that went to America in response to the massacres in Europe. From the agitators of the IWW, many of them Irish, who organised right across the US all the way down to Mexico in the 1910s to the European autonomists of the 1970s and 80s who reached the Irish shores. From the Young Irelanders and the Fenians who criss -crossed the Atlantic to many Republicans who continue to do so linking the homeland with the nomadic Irish communities and their allies, in the US and beyond.

This mobility has a thousand threads that are interwoven - old traditions and new needs are mixed together, just as republicanism and modern class struggle were woven together.

Therefore, those beings-against, the new republicans, while escaping from the local and particular constraints of their human condition, will try to construct a new body and a new life. This, I believe, is a necessarily violent and barbaric passage - but joining Walter Benjamin, I will say this is positive barbarism. The new barbarian republican will see nothing permanent. And for this reason he or she will see ways everywhere. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists will be slowly reduced to rubble, not for the sake of it, but for that of the way leading through it.

We are a long way away here from fighting for the 6th Dail seat or from getting so-and-so into the local Council. We are a million miles away from ‘representativity’. And, equally, from ‘executing’ still another construction worker albeit by accident. We have left ‘vanguardism’ behind.

The barbaric deployments work on human relations in general. But we can recognise them today first and foremost in configurations of sexuality and gender. In our bodies. Ireland, for example, has the largest percentage or mothers-living-alone - does that tell us anything at all re: our perception of attitudes to family? ‘If you find your body refusing the normal modes of life, don’t despair - realize your gift!’ read a recent wall writing in London. The infinite paths of the new barbarians must form a new mode of life and of working.

This transformation will remain weak and ambiguous, however, so long as it is cast only in terms of form. Piercing our ears or penis for that matter, dressing in drag, or engaging in transsexuality may be, if pushed, precursors of that corporal transformation that is going on at the moment. Leaving the urban jungle - ditto. But they will remain empty gestures. The simple refusal of order, of the way things are, simply leaves us on the edge of nothingness - or worse, these gestures risk re-enforcing power rather than challenging it.

As early as the 19th century, proletarians were recognised as the nomads of the capitalist world. Certain peoples such as the Italians, the Greeks and the Irish were always referred to as ‘nomadic peoples’.

To locate the proposition in the Marxian terrain: When the relationship of what is ‘inside’ and what ‘outside’ breaks down, when the ‘use value’ we create ceases to be expropriated by capital, when the new forms of our productive capacity, the new forms of labour power, are created, then we will produce a new the human existence. A monumental task, to be sure, but the only meaningful way forward.

In this terrain, the juxtaposition of ‘socialist republicanism’ to ‘nationalism’, posed by Bernadette, is rather dubious. For socialism, if it means anything today, defines the ‘inside’ as use value and the ‘outside’ as exchange value and hence argues for a politics for the producers of use value to appropriate that use value for themselves. But today that separability of the two values, the contradiction between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ is an illusion. Production and exploitation continue, of course, but the multitudes produce and are exploited in a much larger terrain than socialism ever envisaged - much more diffuse than the locality, the region, or indeed, the sovereign ‘Nation State’. Much further than Lenin’s formulation of ‘imperialism’.

‘Empire’ is the concept I use to describe this process, the non-place, of globalised production where labour is exploited. And here is where I locate the key opponent of revolutionary modern republicanism, which has no possible correspondence with this Empire.

The Empire that has neither risen spontaneously out of the interactions of radically diverse global forces nor as a harmonious concert orchestrated by either the hidden hand of the world market or a set of conspirators. This system which is not a perfecting, or, a variant of, previous imperialisms.

Being republican today means going way beyond the gesture and struggle fully against the constitution of this - what Bush - the Father - called ‘new world order’ and we called an Empire. That system that makes slaughter and calls it peace - that has resurrected the very corrupt system of just wars and served force back to us as being in the service of right.

Modern revolutionary republicanism will argue for a struggle against all the hybrid modulating forms of the Empire, as encapsulated by all those on the Other Side. The Other Side that morphs imperceptibly depending on where we are sitting. Yet it’s always there smirking at us, kicking footballs, kissing babies, shaking hands, making speeches, passing laws, writing books, celebrating jubilees, cutting ribbons, erecting monuments and playing the guitar. All the while controlling and exploiting us.

In this way we can re-create ourselves. We must leave all moralisms and all nostalgia behind (including all its socialist variants) and accept that globalisation (and the gradual dismembering of the ‘Nation State’ it heralds) provides much greater possibilities for not only creation, but also liberation. Refrains of the ‘Internationale’ should not blur the fact that the utopian futures the workers of the world were told to fight for came about despite the defeat of their organisations and ideologies.

The future belongs I am convinced to the ‘be-againsts’, the barbaric multitudes, who will push through and come out the other side. To those who wrote in 1995 on a Paris wall: ‘Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the French!’ Whose struggles will relate to one another not like links of an imaginary chain but rather like a virus that modulates its form to find in each context an adequate host. Against and beyond Empire!

To finish by quoting Jose Marti, the Cuban revolutionary republican, ‘Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen.’





Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives





I was determined to achieve the total freedom that our history lessons taught us we were entitled to, no matter what the sacrifice.
- Rosa Parks

Index: Current Articles

8 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


The BNP, Anti-Fascism and the Libertarian Dilemma
Mark Hayes


Out of the Ashes of Armed Struggle Arose the Stormontistas And They Fought...Ardoyne Youth

Anthony McIntyre


Republicanism in the Age of Empire
Michael Youlton


The Interface
Davy Carlin


Colombia Deteriorates Daily
Sean Smyth


The Letters Page has been updated.


5 September 2002


Why Doesn't Britain Leave
Sandy Boyer


Che Guevara

Anthony McIntyre


Perfecting the Violence of Curfew
Sam Bahour


Understanding Culture
Billy Mitchell


Brian Mór


Brian Mór


Brian Mór




The Blanket



Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices

To contact the Blanket project with a comment, to contribute an article, or to make a donation, write to: