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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 26, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

    Apocalypse Now?

    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 

    • Longman Oz says:

      Cowen is not doing anything very different from what FG would have to do,

      That is probably quite true! However, he was the Minister for Finance for four years and chief architect of three pre-general election budgets. He cannot be let off that easily!

    • Des Johnson says:

      We have seen this movie before, in stark black and white. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and of other empires, the Thousand Year Reich and the British Empire included. The empire now falling, and dragging us down with it, is the empire of the blind ideologues of free market capitalism. Its patron saints are Ronnie (Government is the problem, not the solution) and Greenspan (the banks can regulate themselves out of self interest.)
      Gordon Gekko said it differently in Wall Street –Greed is good. Like Borat, we might now add, as some of us did all along: NOT.

      Indeed the first draft of this film was written by the Yahwist, when s/he described the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, so that they must now earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. Too many in the world of finance wanted to earn their bread by the sweat of the brows of others, with no risk to themselves.

      And that’s where the Irish government (and others) failed. They bought a toxic pig in a poke, the risk and so-called securitised derivatives cooked up in Wall Street.

      Where will it end? Where courage and leadership take us, and where old fashioned virtues are still the gold standard.

    • David says:

      Journalists do seem to think they convey the immediate facts in news reports, but quite often they simply relay the immediate facts relayed to them by ‘higher authorities’. Take those ‘accidental’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Irish Times today has a lengthy report from Anne Marie Hourihane (and a verbatim military press release on the need to increase troop numbers) on the murders of a female aid worker and a female military officer in Afghanistan by the Taliban. The two women are named and details of their lives offered by way of engaging the reader in an emotional bond. Compare that with the way The Irish Times reports the murders of Afghan civilians by US and NATO troops, where scores of women and children are killed, seemingly weekly, in bombing raids. Their names are not offered, their stories are not documented, they are Mark Curtis’s ‘Unpeople’.

      In reality, the ability of many journalists to internalise the objectives and strategies of higher authorities makes the historian’s job all the more difficult. While the ‘success’ of the surge is hailed as the emergence of ‘calm’, it’s reporting belies the reality of the true meaning of that calm – ethnic cleansing or as it used to be referred to … genocide. Iraq is now apparently back to 2005 levels of violence – it is amazing to think that violence on the scale of two years into a bloody occupation, that had already claimed over 100,000 lives by 2004, could be considered three years later a ‘success’. A success made possible by over 4 million refugees and 1 million dead. But Afghanistan is the greatest surprise of all, an illegal war we can all agree on. Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, opinion-writers, pundits, experts, military analysts, you name them, they’re all desensitised to the killing of a few Afghans. Forgotten are the warnings, by Colin Powell no less, that 4 million Afghans were on the brink of starvation before the war had even begun. The institutional memory has been sanitised of inconvenient facts.

      As for the domestic political scene, the media are similarly reluctant to put events in context. While the Economist chronicles the collapse of capitalism, the media studiously ignores its role in bringing it about. The remnants of the property bubble are still to be seen in The Irish Times, with Frank McDonald glorifying that shoebox developer Liam Carroll last week. And back on Wall Street the bonuses keep rolling in, ensuring the madmen will stay in charge of the asylum.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I think the longer term victim in all this will be our current form of consumerism rather capitalism. There was any amount of frippery bought in the last decade in Ireland. That I think is where the change in values will come, working longer hours to buy nicer curtains will in time go the way of domestic servants. A longer term focus on quality and less on fashion may be the upshot of people having less ready cash and more value in what it can be used for. I could be wrong, but that’s my impression right now.

      As for what FG would do differently were they in government. FG unlike FF believe you can reduce the cost of services provided while not reducing the actual amount of service being delivered to the public. One example is the suggestion of a pay freeze for those over 50K in the education sector. FF take the view that cost reduction in the public sector is simply about calling for cuts on the telly but then letting the public sectors themselves decide what areas are to be cut. The government and ministers in this situation are supposed to represent the interests of the public, those using the services, in all this. Instead they leave it to those delivering the services. Of course few in the public sector are going to suggest that they all should take a cut or live with a freeze so it’s LIFO and throw more recent programs overboard.

      Ministers need to remember that they are supposed to be in charge and set the direction. That they set the direction and their civil servants have to work out the how, not the civil servants present the minister with some options (ensuring that anything really unpalatable to them is left off the table) and the minister has simply to pick from this limited selection.

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