Limerick City of Culture: Managing Away the Grievances

With the recent fracas over the Limerick City of Culture project in which four leading members resigned (the CEO’s resignation coming on the back of pressure from the initial resignation of the artistic director; international programmer and legacy programmer) there has been some commentary made on the discourse, particularly from chairman Pat Cox (who is also a seasoned politician), which has emerged in order to sidestep any underlying issues leading up to the resignations. Poet Kevin Higgins managed to piece together, and publish over at the Irish Left Review, some satirical verses from the speeches on the issue:

I am humbled by what I’ve heard here tonight.
I am determined to hit the reset button.
This is a lot more complicated than what actually happened.
I will be taking stock of resourcing requirements.

Kerrigan writing for the Sunday Independent points to how these “pre-packaged phrases” or “Vaccuspeak” employed as a language of control are attached to the wider power structures in society whereby “meaningless words mask [a] rotten system”:

… it could be any CEO or manager or consultant, any big shot from the public or private sectors. And he or she could argue for something, or argue against that same thing — and the language would be precisely the same. Challenge, draw a line, move forward.

The function of this language is to provide a comforting impression of what’s happening, while keeping the underlying reality out of the debate. It’s the language of the PR consultant, the language of the professional insider. It’s the language of the Taoiseach.

The importance of this language is not in what it tells us — but in what it conceals. Take the Limerick arts debacle. There was a very specific set of circumstances in which certain forces clashed — politics versus artistic endeavour. Mr Cox’s language said nothing whatever about those forces or that clash — it soothed.

“The question now,” said Mr Cox, “is about going forward.” (This insight — that the way forward involves “going forward” — distinguishes such dynamic thinkers from the rest of us.) We must “learn the lessons” so that we can get “back on track”. How? By pressing “the reset button”. We need to be “wholly focused”, he said, to ensure the proper outcome is “fully delivered”, in a “fully accountable way”. This will help us “tap into” the required “motivation” and “engagement”. And therefore turn the current negative anger into the “positive energy of success”.

I wonder if this sort of language is attached to the spread of ‘new managerialsm’ that appears to be invading all areas of Irish society (1) (2). In new managerialism, accelerated by the development of professional management (3), management becomes that profession, which facilitates the entrance of the business model into all areas; pursuing efficiency and econometric notions of performativity. Its spread is particularly emblematic of the extensive symbolic powers of the business field. The public sector subordination by the private has helped the spread of managerialist discourse built around private models of consumer satisfaction : e.g., “‘customer service plans’, ‘customer service targets’, and ‘service delivery models’” (2). This has also come to include charity work and fund-raising, which has surely played no small part in the recent scandal over top-ups and high salaries for the management in this area: professionalization of management serves to legitimate high remunerations.

The pre-packaged phrases attributed to Pat Cox above are more about managing crisis and preventing conflict but so as to overcome resistance to the singular vision of garnering return on investment. It also operates as a means of legitimizing his own position in all of this, wiping the slate clean of all blame including his own. Much of managerialism is exactly about this: legitimating the continued existence and authority of management. The sort of language used is depoliticizing and an attempt to manage away the issues and subordinate the conflicts under a false solidarity or a manipulated unity which can then be manoeuvred towards the ultimate goal of expanding market access. There is no real room in such framing for any moral or local cultural considerations which appears to be one of the underlying issues behind the City of Culture clash:

“What I believe deserves further debate and critical analysis is the expectation of what a city of culture campaign should bring: some believe [it is] investment in local arts-and-culture infrastructure, some in ensuring a city becomes the next tourist destination, some in international blockblusters coming to the city. It is a very delicate balance.” (Karl Wallace: the former Artistic Director who resigned)

With the spread of managerialism at third level, increasingly the value for money supplants cultural values and “needs of potential learners” as university managers engage in a competitive commoditization of knowledge (4). Similarly with the City of Culture conflict, the allure of expanding tourism and rebranding Limerick city appeared to be key interests of the former CEO who clashed with the local arts community.

This managing away of genuine concerns was in evidence with how certain elites dealt with the 2008 banking and property collapse. Initially the crisis was met with vehement criticism in the media over the behaviour of banking leaders (5) (6), the regulators (7) and the avaricious expansion of property developers. But an elite group of politicians, bankers and businessmen have done much to shift blame from the banks, property developers and light touch regulators to the general public. Through a continuous recurrence of the collective ‘we’ or the less familiar ‘the people’ the pre-crisis benefits and responsibility for collapse are rhetorically represented as being shared by the Irish public who must now bear the brunt of the cutbacks as a consequence (8). Much of this framing aims to provide continuing support for the shifting of private debt onto the shoulders of the public; who must now submit to the social solidarity and individualization of responsibility in favour of the new narrative of ‘economic recovery’. Such depoliticising and de-contextualising managerialist rhetoric is further visible in the approaches to the crisis continued by the current coalition embodied in the pseudo-solidarity or hegemonic terms of ‘Ireland Inc.’[1]; or ‘Brand Ireland’ reducing a complex society to its business producing capacity.

Such a solidarising approach also appeared to be the case during social partnership, when union bosses collected salaries that located them in the upper echelons of society (10). Union management bureaucracies mythologised claims of equal partnership with business and government and of consensus support amongst union members for social partnership (11), which in part served to legitimise their own existence. This negation of conflict, false solidarisation of corporation/committee/party goals and the self-legitimization of management seem like key strategies of new managerialism (of course this is much mirrored in how governments employ national unity particularly in Ireland as part of ‘economic nationalism’).

I hope to return to the subject of managerialism as my understanding of it and this blog progresses but I leave the last words to Kerrigan on the practice of verbally managing away conflict:

The Vaccuspeak dialect allows the elites to make themselves accountable to the media, but in language that neutralises and depoliticises issues. Concealing the politics. And, when a handful of politicians get uncomfortable with this, and demand inquiries, whole areas of information are ruled out (“that’s commercially sensitive”) or significant documents are — oh, dear — lost.

So, the language of Vaccuspeak thrives, a soothing, neutralising voice. In positive language, it tells us, with great sincerity, that we must learn the lessons, draw a line and move on — going forward.

1. Grummell B, Devine D and Lynch K (2009) Appointing Senior Managers in Education: homosociability, local logics and authenticity in the selection process. Educational Management Administration & Leadership 37 (3): 329-349.

2. Kirby P, Murphy M (2008) Globalisation and Models of State: Debates and Evidence from Ireland.

3. Schinkel W, Noordegraaf M (2011) Professionalism as Symbolic Capital: Materials for a Bourdieusian Theory of Professionalism. Comparative Sociology 10: 67-96.

4. Maton K (2005) A question of autonomy: Bourdieu’s field approach and higher education policy. Journal of Education Policy 20 (6): 687–704.

5. Kerr Á (2008) Cowen’s tough message for bankers: it’s payback time. The Irish Independent, 03/10/2008.

6. O’hora A (2008) Bank chiefs facing share deals probe. The Irish Independent, 03/10/2008, p.Front.

7. Weston C, Brennan M and Buckley D (2008) Watchdog under fire on €112bn bank debt. The Irish Independent, 04/10/2008, p.Front.

8. Mccullagh C (2010) ‘We are where we are’: Constructing the Crisis. In: Share P & Corcoran MP (eds.) Ireland of the Illusions: A sociological chronicle 2007-2008. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 37-54

9. Trench B (2009) Representations of the Knowledge Economy:Irish Newspapers’ Discourses on a Key Policy Idea Irish Communications 11.

10. The Irish Times (2009) Leaders of INTO and Impact earn highest pay, survey finds. The Irish Times, Fri 10 Oct 2009.

11. Dyk S V (2009) From Peripherality and Conflict to Consensus-based Success? Applying a Foucauldian Perspective on Power and Discourse to the Irish Model of Social Partnership. Irish Journal of Sociology 17 (1).

[1] Bestowed on the country by policy makers during the Celtic Tiger “to encompass the whole society and to stress the perceived need to reorient social sectors to the demands of economic development” (9).


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