The flag protests and the propaganda of peace
It is interesting how the flag protests are being framed in the media. So much of the coverage and comment has focused on the dreadful impact of road blocks on retail and the damage being done to the Northern Ireland ‘brand’. It seems that what we are being presented with is a conflict, not between the old foes of unionism and nationalism this time, but one between the apparently incomprehensible, atavistic behaviour of loyalist protestors and the commercial interests of a thoroughly modern Northern Ireland. This is illustrated beautifully on the front-page of today’s Belfast Telegraph (22 December 2012) that carries a story about how shoppers have defied the flag protesters and brought some “Festive cheer at last for retailers’.
This framing of the dispute as being between bad old politics and virtuous consumerism is an example of the ‘propaganda of of peace’.
Two very clever blokes, Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker (quite the most charming gentleman of my acquaintance), wrote a book about this a couple of years ago, entitled (not unsurprisingly) The Propaganda of Peace. The book looked at a broad range of media and cultural representations of Northern Ireland during the peace process and argued that just as people sometimes need to be persuaded to go to war, in Northern Ireland the public need to be persuaded that peace is possible. As you might expect, the media played a key role in this, with films, television dramas and comedies, newspapers, museum exhibitions coming behind a message extolling the virtues of peace.
McLaughlin and Baker argue that essentially there are two ‘narratives’ within the propaganda of peace. The first promotes peace and reconciliation (and there’s not much wrong with that) but the second is concerned with Northern Ireland’s interpellation as a constituent of neo-liberal capitalism after years spent relying on subventions from the British exchequer.
The two narratives are crystalised in the picture below of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness seated in the entrance to IKEA on the outskirts of Belfast on its opening day in December 2007. It’s an image of once sworn enemies now united beneath the banner of a global consumer brand, which in effect presents peace and capitalist enterprise as somehow underscoring one another.
The problem with the propaganda of peace is that it can brook no political convictions or allegiances. In global capitalism the only legitimate expression of human identity is through consumption. As Eric Hobsbawm has argued, ‘Free-market theory effectively claims that there is no need for politics because the sovereignty of the consumer should prevail over everything else.’ Similarly, David Harvey, points out that this is ‘a world in which the neo-liberal ethic of intense, possessive individualism, and its political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization.’
This is one reason why loyalism’s politics and fierce sense of community is a problem in the new Northern Ireland, where commercial and consumer interests trump every other form of human organisation. In the neo-liberal world that Northern Ireland sleep-walked into undercover of the peace process, collective cultural identities are fine, as long as they can be configured as ‘lifestyle-choices’ or packaged as examples of heritage for the consumption of tourists. Seen in these terms, why should loyalism be reconciled with the peace process?
Which brings me back to the point I was making in the last post, if the peace process is to succeed in any meaningful sense then we need to start talking about the quality of the peace that is being proposed. Do we want a peace that privileges vacuous consumer identities or one that provides people with meaningful contexts within which to experience and live their lives?