- 13 Dec 10
To one degree or another, Dermod Moore says, we all share some of the blame for what has happened to the economy. The $200 billion question now is – can we learn from our errors and move on?
The economic crisis here in Ireland is largely systemic, a direct result of global capitalism's excesses. The extraordinarily computerized financial markets do not factor in national characteristics or histories, have no logarithm for integrity or good intentions, whether the governments are comprised of shameless gangsters or selfless, caring servants of the people.
Economics on this scale has no conscience. It's survival of the fittest, with nothing remotely civilized about it. If an arm or a leg gets infected in the body of an economic system, it gets amputated, tens of thousands of traders setting their software to go for the kill, minimize losses, extract the most possible profit out of the weakness. It's a system designed to exploit vulnerability. In a Matrix universe, financial traders' computers would manifest as virtual maggots, crawling into the wounds and devouring the rot, right to the bone. No matter if the patient is howling in pain, the fat maggots gorge themselves, and drop off, sated, leaving raw flesh exposed to
In this ruthless world, you have to pay attention to economic realities, learn from previous mistakes, be cautious. There is no room for complacency. Prior to the meltdown, there was a period of relative global stability, that was heralded, among others, by Gordon Brown's hubristic promise to end the era of boom and bust. People did not believe that a depression could happen again. Everyone lost sight of reality.
Except those who were paid to think strategically, to step back and offer a long-term economic perspective. The ESRI report from March 2000, the news report of which has now gone viral, (url.ie/89s0), clearly warned against inflating the property bubble and lowering taxes. Bertie Ahern flatly dismissed it. He was not going to call a halt to a development that heralded the “first few years of bringing people back” to Ireland since the Famine. He felt that there were a “lot of Irish people out there that we owe, to give them the opportunity” to return.
This is fascinating stuff. While the global system has no interest in the psyches of nations, a nation in crisis has to figure out for itself the causes, conscious and unconscious, that led to its problems, in order to avoid repeating them. In the same way as a person undergoes a course of psychotherapy, a nation on the couch has to look into its past to understand itself, and forgive itself when it has fucked up, and try to see the mistakes made with some degree of kindness and compassion. Easier to do when looking back at a child's thought processes, and harder to do with a young nation.
Psychotherapy as a discourse has a lot to offer in terms of political evolution. Some say that the “talking cure” can mollify and neuter rage, minimise discomfort, and thereby lead to people caring less about the problems of the world around them. The world only gets changed when people are angry enough to change it. Remove the anger, so the reasoning goes, and the world stays the same.
I disagree, because I believe that the problems of the world are far more effectively solved if people spend less time acting out with undiluted, unconsidered rage, and get clear-headed. No matter how good it feels to scream abuse in street protests at the wunch of bankers and the gobshites that are in government, it doesn't actually change a thing. The blame game, which, if it was an Olympic sport, would weigh down the Irish with gold medals, has to stop, because it does not go anywhere.
What if we were to take Bertie Ahern's words at face value, and that he was motivated, at least in part, to heal some of the ancient wounds of the Famine? That he saw himself, as leader of the Irish, at home and abroad, in a position to compensate for the horrors of the past? I doubt he had any idea his words would be dissected in this way ten years later, nor had he any clue that this decision would, among others in a similar vein, have led to such disastrous consequences. He was in a good mood, he was not on the defensive or offering excuses, it was simply the way he thought about leading the country. And so, I believe him on this point, although I don't believe much else that comes out of his mouth.
Why I find his words so interesting, is that it shows we still haven't learned all the lessons from the Famine. Ireland on the couch has still to go one further step towards a sense of self-reliance and true psychological independence. Psychotherapy is about paying close attention, not to the actions or misdeeds of others, but on our own part in whatever happened to us, however unconsciously it was played out. So much energy was (rightly) invested in laying the blame of the famine at Westminster's door, using it as yet another reason to gain independence. But so little has been learned about the way we, the Irish people, decided to use one crop to feed ourselves – despite the constant background presence of potato blight. I know poverty was a factor in our dependence on the potato, but at the same time we were an agricultural nation, not without our own wisdom and expertise on the subject, which would not have been located in some Whitehall ministerial office, but in the farming community itself. For some reason, we ignored the warnings, the misgivings, the doubts, and decided that the collective risk we were taking was worth it, and we bet everything on one horse.
In the nineteenth century, it was the potato crop. In the twenty-first century, it was the property market.
We lose our heads sometimes, as a people. We don't always take the sensible route. And there's a collective blindness that we indulge in, a sort of collusive denial of reality, that we really need to get to the bottom of. Brian Lenihan was right – we all partied (url.ie/89sk) – and the odd way that the Irish people have not rioted and ground the country to a shuddering halt with national strikes is perhaps to do with a sense of guilt, a curious awareness that we know, deep down that somehow we contributed to it ourselves. A day at the races sometimes ends with losing the shirt off one's back, but sure wasn't it a grand day all the same?
And before every anti-Fianna Fáiler starts screaming abuse at these words, I am not defending them, and I now, sadly, believe Brian Lenihan to be incompetent. But the “we” in Ireland has to include those who have voted Fianna Fáil, otherwise we will not understand ourselves.
There is one big difference between the famine and our current bankruptcy – no one died this time around. That's progress.
It's only money. And I say that as someone who has been extremely broke and in debt and on the dole, and even at times, as a self-employed person, broke and unable to get the dole. It's no joke, and it's extremely worrying, but it is precisely at those times that I have realised what really matters is friendship and family.
Christmas is far simpler without money. Tell everyone you're cancelling it, not giving any gifts, and I guarantee you'll have a ball. It's not shameful to be broke. Really. Just spend the time with those you love. That is all. It is perfectly possible to feed a dozen friends with a bag of brown rice and vegetables, for a fiver.
We need to remember, especially now, that economics is not life. Life is far richer and warmer and kinder than the system we have created to fund it. And it can be changed.