Sunday, 13 December 2009

The New Orthodoxy

If there's a word that I wish people would say more often, it's "socio-economic."

Yes, really. Obviously, socio-economic is an ugly word, and it would be nice if we could come up with an alternative to it. And yet, that ugliness is part of the point - it reminds us, in the most jarring way possible, that "society" and "economy" are intrinsically linked; that we shouldn't, can't, run our nation-states as if our government were an auditing accountant from KPMG.

If that statement seems almost too obvious, it's a reality that has persistently failed to assert itself in how we run our countries. This has been clearest in the last two years, ever since The Money Started Running Out, but you can comfortably trace it right back to the moment that Bill Clinton hung "It's the Economy, Stupid" on the wall of his campaign headquarters.

This phenomenon, where the economy is viewed as something discrete and walled-off, has matured into a situation where we see the management of the economy as the primary function of government; meanwhile, society is something that just happens, an accidental occurrence around the figures in the ledger. More and more, governments see their jurisdiction as functioning in purely economic terms. Even more damagingly, the people are encouraged by their media to view things in exactly the same way.

It's now law, under the Musings On Society Act 1998, that you have to coin a word for any social phenomenon; I'm going for Economism as a suitably clunky meme. The best current example is Newstalk's vapid editorial of the last week; this was greeted by a mixture of vague outrage and smug agreement by listeners, some of whom registered approval, others who sputtered their annoyance at Newstalk's arrogance in editorialising at all. Still, the real nastiness of the speech wasn't really discussed (well not to my satisfaction, anyway): it wasn't the arrogance or the banality, it was that Newstalk discussed the Irish nation exactly as if they were discussing a Limited Company. Lines like "we must compete against Newry and Bratislava" are pretty unambiguous in this regard, but you can go further with the parallel; if you replace the words "Taoiseach", "country" and "Ireland" with "CEO", "company" and "McDonalds", then a dullish self-satisfied speech becomes shockingly cogent. The recent collapse of laissez-faire economics and consumer culture was an opportunity - a painful one, but opportunity nonetheless - for us to reconsider the economy-lead society we have allowed to develop. Instead we've gone into retreat, grimly pushing beads on our abacuses and calling it government - or even more destructively, 'political commentary'.

Obviously it's impossible to mention Newstalk's editorial without referring to it being owned by Denis O'Brien - a multi-millionaire tax exile who made his fortune from buying up state-owned companies and bleeding them dry of their assets. That such a noxious little man can lecture us about our overpaid doctors, lawyers, teachers and accountants is a grotesque triumph of economy-lead thinking, where O'Brien's wealth is the only measure of the man that matters.

The reason that economics-based commentary of the IBEC variety grates so much is that it's so utterly fatuous. The IBEC brigade view governance of a nation entirely in terms of running a company, then discredit their opponents by the implication that Silly Lefty Pinkos can't grasp the desperately complex issues. It seems infra dig in these situations to point out that the abstract theories of running a business aren't really all that taxing; you want big numbers in one column and small numbers in another, and that we give these people the status of "experts" is possibly the most depressing result of the entire budget-driven malaise.

The false simplicity of the "It's the Economy, Stupid" mantra is probably the reason for how well it had endured, in spite of how obviously unsuccessful it's been. If you want to view the last two decades or so as an economic experiment in deregulation, then the results are far from encouraging. And yet we keeping looking at the world through the same shit-tinted glasses - scrambling to overturn the sudden deficits of the past by cutting where it's most convenient, discussing what we social measures we "can" and "can't" do against the same discredited backdrop. The most remarkable doublethink about this climate - where we venerate the entrepeneur above all others, and seriously suggest that Michael O'Leary should be allowed to run the country - is that we accept the truism that business is dynamic / adaptable / the powerhouse of the country, yet we're asked to make all our decisions based on the need to facilitate the wonder of business, as if this is oh-so-resourceful and benevolent god will run screaming at the mere mention of the words "Tobin Tax".

(Interestingly, the great electoral successes of the recent past weren't based on the economy, but on social aspiration. I'm thinking principally of the triumphs of Barack Obama and, in 1997, of Tony Blair; these were people swept in on a tide of euphoria because they actually spoke about how they saw society, in terms that were - admittedly - broad and aspirational. Nobody in Ireland has done this since 1997, when John Bruton opened a pre-election debate with Bertie Ahern by talking about the Ireland he wanted to create. Bruton wiped the floor with Ahern, but lost anyway, mostly because he looked like a farmer's simple older brother.)

And so we can justify any measure as being all about "sharing the pain", one of the most detestable aphorisms to be coined in the recent past. We aren't talking about pain, we're talking about economic hardship, and if the distinction seems pedantic then it's one we shouldn't forget. "Pain", in these terms, is something transient and unavoidable that we suffer as a healing process. Economic Hardship - that's poverty, if we're discussing the least fortunate of our pain-sharers - doesn't serve any purpose at all, it's just a long exercise in powerlessness and futility. Being on the dole isn't pain; it's a gnawing, everyday reminder that you live in a society where you have nothing to contribute. That, frankly, you don't matter, and that you might never matter again.

It's only if you accept and believe the Economism dogma, only if you're utterly persuaded by the primacy of the public accounts ledger, that the 2010 Budget is admirable or competent.

And fair's fair; viewed from that prism, it probably is. Certainly, it was better than we could have expected, knowing who we were dealing with; if you're setting out to save €4bn as simply as possible, then that's been achieved. The cutting of Social Welfare payments is unfortunate, but probably just about manageable. The cuts to public sector pay have been applied with half an eye on progressive principles. The abandoning of the 0.7% foreign aid pledge, comfortably the most bitter part of the whole document, justifies itself with the cry of The Money Isn't There. There's nothing really there to aid job creation, but we didn't expect that there would be - this was a steady-the-ship exercise, not one intended to catch more fish. Hence the hollow ring to the attacks from Labour and Fine Gael - they've banged on about job creation, but they've yet to suggest that they'd do anything substantially different.

The wrongness, then, comes from a deeper source, a sickness in the whole lousy paradigm to which we are addicted. A budget isn't just a set of accounts; it's a narrative, a statement, a manifesto of where we want to go. It is a socio-economic document, not a purely economic one. At this point, where our econo-culture is more or less bottoming out and looking where it should go next, this budget was a way of saying who we saw as being truly important. The answer is depressing.

It was suggested several times that a third tax rate on high earners should be applied. This was rejected on the basis that it wouldn't raise any real revenue, and that many of these people would probably up and leave the country (like, say, the owner of Newstalk). This is, quite probably, true. The tax wouldn't be any great economic benefit; and yet it would set an entirely different tone to who we value most in our culture. It would have told the wealthy that a significant responsibility for the country's well-being lay with them. It would have said that we don't judge the worth of an individual in monetary terms. It would have sent a message that, if a rich individual felt they had no duty to society and wanted to retreat to a tax haven, then they could fuck right off and we'd be happy to pay for their ticket; that this super-class are due no more respect than a care assistant or street-sweeper.

The word "brave" has been bandied about in relation to this budget, as if cutting other people's benefits and saving the money you promised to save were somehow a laudably selfless act. This cockeyed analysis is the result of our Economism. This budget said, in the clearest of all languages, that the less fortunate should accept burdens that the wealthy and self-interested could not be expected to bear. It said that we don't care about the people, we care about the numbers. It said that the basic unit of society isn't the individual, or even the family, but the revenue they generate. This was an exercise in a distinct form of sociopathy, now so commonplace that we no longer even notice its existence.

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Blogger willyrobinson said...

Excellent writing - that bit about 'the pain' - Lenihan's mantra so eagerly adopted by almost the entire Irish media corps - just had to be said. It's utterly inappropriate, and it's incessant repitition is actually a pretty embarassing reflection of our collective literacy.

Forgive me if I never in my life check out newstalk's right-wing guff-fest. It's been a tough season.

Reading's actually pretty stylish witing this week. You could get a real job on the back of this.

13 December 2009 19:44  
Anonymous andyaz said...

"A real job" Haha. Well put.

Great post. We really do need to look at this in terms of narratives. There's a prime example of that dominant economic narrative - of brave, painful, necessary budget cuts ("the cold economic truth") - in today's Observer.

"Its only hope of redemption lies in toughness, and it has nothing to lose." This bold redemption? “Wield the axe”. Increase the number in one column and decrease the other by whatever means (ie by fucking the poor) to keep that psychopathically amoral Market happy. Heroic stuff indeed.

I was incensed by the dole cuts, but they make perfect sense to the number crunchers who’ve been seduced by the corporate narrative of the last decade. What long term social consequences will the dole cuts create? Fuck knows, we’ve closed ‘Combat Poverty’..

13 December 2009 23:09  

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