Deaglán de Bréadún
At the end of a week in the most heavily-populated country in the world I am now heading back to one of the smallest. Meanwhile the front cover of the Economist has a representation of a wounded lion under the motto or headline, “Capitalism at bay”. These are indeed turbulent times.
People say journalists write the first draft of history. It’s true that we are usually on the scene and that we seek to convey the immediate facts in our news reports and perhaps some additional impressions of the situation in what is called a colour-piece. The full, measured assessment against the wider backdrop of events and trends is left to the historians.
They have one advantage over journos and it’s this: they know how the story ends. The reporter at Khe Sanh (crucial 1968 battle in the Vietnam War) or in Baghdad doesn’t know at the time how it will all play out, although s/he may sometimes have a fair inkling. The disadvantage the historians face, though, is that, in most cases, they weren’t actually there.
There are two dimensions to every event: how it looks and feels at the time and how it will be remembered. Even at a personal and domestic level, as children we thoughtlessly and usually happily interact with our mother and father but those same encounters or conversations may be treasured memories when we are grown-up and our parents are no more.
We don’t know how this damn financial crisis is going to turn out. Nobody has seen the movie before, the script is still being written – or rather it’s writing itself. November 15th now looms as a very important date indeed: that’s when the G20 countries - major industrial and developing nations – assemble in Washington to discuss the crisis.
George W. Bush will be in the chair but all eyes will be on the President-Elect and what Obama/McCain has to say about the situation. It’s clear that the banks and financial institutions need a good deal more supervision and monitoring than they do now. If the G20 fail to agree on that, then we’re in real trouble.
It’s funny how deep economic downturns so often seem to coincide with protracted and rather futile wars. Thus we have the Iraqi situation, which started badly, turned into a bloody nightmare but is now ending on a relatively calm note, and the conflict in Afghanistan, which started well for the Allies but is now descending into a quagmire.
The sooner Bush retreats into the background the better. Probably even the man himself wishes he were somewhere else. If the fundamental thing missing at the moment is confidence, then a new face in the Oval Office should provide some of that precious commodity, at least for a while
There will be a lot of competing interests around that table in less than three weeks’ time. But they will hopefully realise that, “united we stand, divided we fall”. A new international financial architecture is required so that we don’t have to go through this nonsense again, at least not for a good long while.
As for our own domestic political scene, we Irish are as surprised as anyone else by this sudden turn of events. In the news media, we are busy chronicling the collapse of capitalism, but whether temporary or not is impossible to say.
In the past, capitalism has gone through crises on a cyclical basis but has always recovered and moved on to new strengths. That old buy-and-sell market instinct is probably wired into the human brain at this stage.
If this is a crisis too far and the whole thing comes crashing down for good, then we are facing a nuclear-style wasteland, a return to barbarism, rather than an advance to a new social order based on solidarity rather than shillings. Not a very cheerful thought but there is no organised social movement out there to pick up the pieces. I rather suspect, though, that it is not so much a case of Apocalypse Now as Apocalypse Now and Then.
Whatever you think of his politics, you have to feel a teeny bit sorry for Brian Cowen. An opinion poll in the Sunday Business Post has Fianna Fáil tumbling ten points while Fine Gael go up five and Labour gains six. In broad terms, Cowen is not doing anything very different from what FG would have to do, if they were in power, although hopefully Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton and their coalition partners would have the wit not to go for the old folks in such a tactless fashion (John Bruton did go for the children’s shoes that time though).
All week in China I have been listening to friends and colleagues back in the Dublin office telling me there is a sense of crisis in the air with dire predictions from the economists and general uproar over Budget cuts. It’s hard to square that with Cowen’s relatively placid demeanour. He made the right decision to go to China, even if he was two days late. Had he been at home, there could well have been pensioners lying down in front of his car or waving their walking-sticks at him as he enjoyed a quiet drink in his favourite bar. Imagine the front-page pix and the footage on the evening news. The China trip was organised long in advance so there is no suggestion of Cowen running away. But sometimes it’s better to make yourself scarce.
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times