A postmodernism of despair?

The Guardian carries a heavily contracted version of Stephen Howe’s detailed and fascinating essay, Mad Dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of Loyalism, published in two parts at openDemocracy, [part one here], in which he argues that “the combative cultural and political worldview of Northern Ireland’s working-class Protestant communities is not an atavistic residue but part of a complex response to modern global conditions and national pressures.”

His concluding paragraphs emphasise the difficulties facing this distinctively Irish culture –

It could even be said that the story Loyalism now presents is an anti (or non-) foundationalist one; that Loyalism has largely cut loose from the grand narratives of Unionist history (1641, 1689, 1912, 1916…) and offers only very contemporary and very localised “truths” and images. This is a “postmodernist” approach to the past, perhaps, but is an extremely attenuated vision on which to base any positive political programme.

What remains will inevitably seem to most observers increasingly negative. Loyalism is a culture ambivalent about, when not aggressively resisting, Irishness. Yet, whatever else it is, it is distinctively an Irish culture – one that grew in, and exists only on, the island of Ireland (it has offshoots in west-central Scotland, and more tenuously in Canada, but is sustained there largely by those with Ulster origins or family links).

Loyalism is in a sense the most “alternative” of Ireland’s alternative modernities: that sense being not so much “other” (nor, as in much of the international literature on the concept mentioned earlier, “in a different – postcolonial – place”) as “a different choice”, or, in another dictionary meaning, “outside the mainstream, dissident, resisting”.

“Resisting”, though, with few resources and little confidence. The essential cultural difference between Loyalism and its foes is indeed that while Republicans conceive of themselves as having an inherited, densely woven tradition – however thoroughly and recently reinvented that “tradition” may really be – Loyalists have to make it up as they go along. If the result of that heterogenous improvisation is a kind of untheorised postmodernism, it is the postmodernism of despair. These are the fragments they shore up against their ruins.

Read the rest.

Part one here.

Part two here

  • mnob

    Thoroughly worth a read.

    As “a middle class unionist” still with some ties to the Shankhill I found these articles fascinating and a little disturbing (read too cloase to the truth).

    One passage jumped out at me :

    “In part, the difference is to do with class. Loyalist paramilitaries were recruited almost entirely from urban, blue-collar – or even “lumpenproletarian” – backgrounds. Middle-class, rural and small-town Protestants, if they wanted to “fight back” against the IRA, were far more likely to join official state forces than underground gangs. IRA volunteers, too, have been mainly working-class: but their ranks clearly included people from a wider range of backgrounds. And partly as a result of the legacy of sectarian job and housing discrimination itself, poorer Catholic districts contained more diversity of occupation and aspiration than their Protestant equivalents.”

    but this is just a small part of the essay.

  • slug

    It is interesting mnob. I am always puzzled by these Belfast loyalists, and their lack of educational aspiration.

    Growing up in middle class unionism, there seemed to be tons of aspiration. I remember complaining that there was too much of an “achievment culture”. Queen’s isnt good enough, a 2:1 degree isn’t good enough, and so on etc – as my mother and father drilled into me.

  • Nestor Makhno

    But surely there is an argument to be made that similar forces are affecting the Republicanism as well? Its militaristic culture seems to draw heavily from a range of disparate sources – from the romanticised Guevarist guerrilla (beard – check; AK-47 – check, aesthetic self-sacrifice – check; underpinning socialist rationale – check) right through to the (unintentionally ironic) appropriation of British Army traditions (often distilled through World World II movies -particularly prison escape movies). All those grandiose nomenclatures around ‘OCs’, ‘Brigades’ and ‘quartermasters’ – often giving one the feeling that they a bit like small boys who never grew out of playing with their Action Men.

    One wonders if, now that both role models are now somewhat passe if the IRA had to decommission purely to avoid cultural embarrassment?

    Slightly off topic – but was I the only boy growing up in Northern Ireland who created their own Provo Action Man? (I think it was North Sea Action Man crossed with British Paratrooper Action Man…)

  • Jo

    The limits of the achievement culture were the problem: once the traditional routes to industry were found to lead nowhere, then the “dont worry about it sure theres always…” attitude became the albatross.

  • George

    Well worth a read although my brain hurts now so no futile attempt at deep analysis.

    Loyalists – the last of the White Boys, that jumped out at me.

  • aquifer

    I hope the cultural analysts, behavioural psychologists, and sociologists will have a good look at all the local gun cults.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    slug: “It is interesting mnob. I am always puzzled by these Belfast loyalists, and their lack of educational aspiration.”

    I recall an old joke — What’s the difference between a Provo thug and a Unionst thug? When the Provo leaves prison, he leaves with a degree, the Unionist leaves with a new tattoo.

    We laugh b/c its funny, we laugh b/c its true… its just that sometimes is a little too true to be all that funny.

  • Concerned Loyalist

    mnob,
    You say you still have links to the Shankill, yet you can’t even spell it correctly!
    Self-professed “Middle class” unionists like yourself have nothing in common with the loyalist working-classes. For example,
    Does your everyday life have any similarities to the lives of the residents of the Fountain Estate on Londonderry’s West Bank?
    Has your home ever been paint, petrol or pipe-bombed by gangs of republican youths?
    Have you ever been subjected to sectarian abuse as you walk into your own city/town centre and been warned thet you’ll be “burned out”?.

    In short, your politicians only visit the “rough Prod” areas for their own selfish ends-when they need their vote. I have to add at this point that I’m referring more to the UUP than the DUP, although the DUP are not wholly blameless, but at least make an effort on occasions. The only reason parties such as the UUP are currently highlighting the socio-economic deprivation that permeates these areas, is that they realise it is of political expediency.

  • Concerned Loyalist

    Dread Ctulhu,
    Your joke highlights the deep racism within nationalism/republicanism. The racist stereotypes of the non-educated loyalist, but articulate republican have gone on for too long and are narrow-minded and deeply offensive…

  • ch in dallas

    I read the entire piece (whew!) and as a Texan I feel a certain affinity (isn’t the right word), maybe a kinship with the Ulster Irish, and understand the loyalist angst. Everyone thinks you’re a backward boob. The tee shirt quoted that says “Everybody hates us-and we don’t give a fuck.” I don’t condone it, but I understand it. In the post-modern, metro-sexual world, loyalists and Texans feel like it’s a black tuxedo world, and we’re the pair of brown shoes!

    However, we here started to understand this a few years ago. The loyalists in question, if the article is true and balanced, are trying to fight modernity ect with marching bands about the Somme. No gonna work.

    We here, as they are there, are fiercely proud of heritage, hyper-patriotic, working class and as a culture under-educated. Violence is endemic. You’re either with us, or against us. (I loved that line in the speech.)

    Some loyalists, seem to have all this as their raison d’etre.
    They have to try to move their culture forward, get educated, bring the ecomomy up. Like the piece said, they’re stuck in a time warp between the Celtic Tiger and Cool Britannia, loyal to a system that has changed and couldn’t give a rat’s fart about them.

    Posted by: ch in dallas at October 11, 2005 04:42 PM

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    A very interesting analysis and one that I will read again later when I have more time to reflect. It’s only more recently that I have started to think more about the extent to which human actions and societies are dominated by responses to cultural and community influences. I suppose like many I really did believe in the myth of free will. It is interesting to consider the extent to which loyalist and unionist political behaviors are being dominated by such influences and the essay provides plenty of food for thought. Thank you slugger for bringing this one to our attention.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    CL: “Dread Ctulhu,
    Your joke highlights the deep racism within nationalism/republicanism. The racist stereotypes of the non-educated loyalist, but articulate republican have gone on for too long and are narrow-minded and deeply offensive…”

    Unless someone has changed the dictionary when I was napping, Unionists do not qualify as a “race,” nor are they a “sect.” Unionism is a political ideology, and even *that* may be giving it a little too much credit at times.

    Having been treated to the spectacle of Unionist mouthpieces who cannot discern between the words “condemn” and “condone”, I am left with the suspicioun that my remembered joke cuts a little too close to the bone. Stereotypes are hurtful mainly b/c they have a middlin’ large kernel or truth at their core. If they were patently false, you wouldn’t rankle and they would die a quiet death.