Tuesday, 12 April 2011

What's wrong with you people?

Fintan O'Toole, a great economics and politics thinker, poses the question of why Ireland's population isn't out on the street. After all, a corrupt and greedy bunch of crooks hijacked the government, the legal system, the economic structure, business, the media: the entire public sphere, in fact. They bankrupted the entire country and have got away with it, leaving a highly-educated and articulate population to suffer. But there's very little public display of anger.

The answer, of course, is that Ireland emerged from a ruralist, conservative and conformist post-colonial situation too fast and too enthusiastically: the emerging generation of the 1980s hated politics, collectivism and self-sacrifice. They wanted Porsches and property: indvidualism in its rawest form. Being next to Britain didn't help: there's no way to acquire the trappings of one of the world's largest economies in a short period of time except through greed, ruthlessness and criminality. So Ireland was transformed from rural backwater to cowboy capitalism in a very short time - result: disaster. The problem now is that although Ireland's got a proud history of rebellion, it's always been focussed around colonialism and religion: there's very little class-consciousness to draw on for the present day. Instead, the passionate ones emigrate: Ireland's safety valve.

Although I said that a bunch of crooks hijacked the country, I've been thinking about collective responsibility recently. The Icelanders voted last week not to pay Britain and the Netherlands £3.5bn they lent Iceland to cover bank losses: their case is that the people didn't lose the cash, the banks did. I'm torn on this: it's true, but Iceland as a nation decided to pursue this insane form of hyper-capitalism, to deregulate the banks and gamble. They might not have been an informed public, but they did repeatedly vote in rightwing governments. It's the same in Ireland. Everybody kept voting for the rightwing parties, investing imaginary money in property at home and abroad, and buying new BMW SUVs as though the party would never end. At the other end, the Germans are refusing to forgive some of the corporate debt Ireland's government has underwritten as though they're the innocent victims, and not the enthusiastic peddlers of insane financial products.

There has to be a degree of responsibility: the German, Irish, Icelandic and British people weren't mugged: they dived into the world of speculation with abandon, and have paid the price. On the other hand, as usual, the people who couldn't afford to gamble are the first to suffer: the young, the old, the poor and the sick, while the people who dreamed up these schemes and sold them to governments and populations alike, have got away scot free.

The Icelanders, I think, have it right, despite pretending that the system just appeared by magic:
 Iceland did two remarkable things. First, it let the banks go under: foreign financiers who had lent to Reykjavik institutions at their own risk didn't get a single krona back. Second, officials imposed capital controls, making it harder for hot-money merchants to pull their cash out of the country.

When the credit crunch came to Dublin, the government decided to underwrite the entire banking industry – including tens of billions of euros of loans made by foreign investors. That landed the country with a debt worth something like €80,000 for every household – a debt that effectively bankrupted the country.
"A reverse Robin Hood – taking money from the poor and giving to the rich," is how Anne Sibert, a member of the Central Bank of Iceland's monetary policy committee, describes the Irish policy. But Dublin was merely following the old free-market tradition that rules governments should never break faith with financiers.

Populations aren't rational consumers: none of us ever have the full facts available to make good decisions (the tuition fees scandal pretends that teenagers are rational consumers too) - this is how capitalism works, by selling junk to the misled. We should be on the streets, and it's heartening to see UK Uncut, for instance, getting the hang of it. Let's hope the Irish get out there too - but let's remember that these shysters were knocking at an open door and have a little shame about the way we all fell for the credit-driven consumer lifestyle without a thought for tomorrow.


Sinéad said...

Just a minor point to raise here... you suggest that we kept voting for the rightwing parties, but I know that you're well aware that it's not like there's much of a choice in Irish politics.
Politically speaking, there is little difference between the two main parties: the only reason that Fianna Fáil have been getting the blame for running the country into the ground (which I'm not denying they did) is because it was their turn to run the government during those years. If it had been Fine Gael in charge, I don't kid myself that things would have been any different.
The Labour Party in Ireland is largely a joke. With a couple of exceptions they are a pack of Smoked Salmon Socialists and are about as left wing as... similes fail me - something not very left wing at all though.
Which brings us to the Greens. Unfortunately for them, they lost all credibility when they climbed into bed with Fianna Fáil after the election before last. Being green doesn't come cheap and their tree-hugging (ok, I'm being deliberately facetious here) policies are really only a good fit in an affluent society that can afford them. As soon as your priorities return to keeping the roof over your family's head and food on their table, the Greens become largely irrelevant.
And finally, Sinn Féin. I'm sorry, but I just can't vote for them. Never mind their murky not-so-distant past and the still dodgy connections. Even if I were willing to overlook that on ideological grounds, their political and economic policies are so naive, reactionary, and callow that they'd have us begging Britain take us back into the Empire, because no amount of bail out cash would bring us back from that particular brink.
You know it's a bad day for national politics when you think you'd rather stay in Utah than come home and deal with the fall out from that whole SNAFU.

The Plashing Vole said...

I don't disagree with any of that. It's the post-colonial legacy: a public sphere predicated on lazy dependence on the past with no space to generate new responses. Connolly and Larkin promised the possibility of socialism but faded away. Sinn Fein have always talked left but are as you say utterly reactionary and largely incompetent. I think you're a little hard on Labour: there have been some decent TDs but they are basically New Labour.
Don't forget the Independents in your list: pork barrel cynics to a man (and I mean 'man').
It's all so depressing.