A clarion call to reject the 'axis of austerity'
POLITICS: The Big Lie: Who Profits from Ireland’s Austerity? By Gene Kerrigan, Transworld Ireland, 256pp, £9.99
An acclaimed crime-fiction writer and polemical political commentator, Gene Kerrigan spins a good yarn. There is little suspense in the story of The Big Lie, of course. Kerrigan attributes blame up front, then prosecutes his case in a gripping narrative. The protagonist? “Official Ireland”: our financial, political and professional elite, including bankers, developers, high rollers, tame economists, cheerleading journalists, politicians, advisers and hangers-on.
The Big Lie is like a play in two acts. It chronicles the life and possible death of the “old politics” that sustains Official Ireland. It doesn’t purport to explain where we are going next, or how to get there, but it gives a lucid account of why we are where we are.
Kerrigan sets the scene with a summary of the gospel according to Official Ireland: how the plucky underdog nation punched above its weight before coming to grief only because the subprime crisis took down Lehman Brothers. In this fairy tale, we will “wave goodbye to the IMF” and live happily ever after if only we submit to austerity’s cold embrace. All naysayers are ruthlessly undermined.
If Official Ireland is the villain, then it is in good company. Kerrigan places the Irish experience in the global context of neo-liberal ascendancy. Since Thatcher and Reagan, the new orthodoxy of privatisation, deregulation and shrinking the welfare state has replaced the postwar Keynesian consensus.
In Ireland, the political embodiment of free-market fundamentalism was the Progressive Democrats. Their dogma became the mainstream. The rest is history.
Symptomatic of the new greed-is-good philosophy was the culture of entitlement that took hold at the upper levels of corporate Ireland.
Kerrigan derides the “cult of entrepreneurship”. He eviscerates the corporate class – the “new gentry” – and all who aped them. They demanded rock-star remuneration “because they were worth it”. They cemented their status with ostentatious displays of wealth. Rounds of golf with Tiger Woods were auctioned for ridiculous sums at high society’s charity events. This was how they gave something back.
Property and the easy life
Middle Ireland was not immune to the elite’s example. Egged on by the banks and the rest of Official Ireland, it came to see property as an infallible get-rich-quick scheme. People didn’t have homes; they had equity they could leverage. Ordinary people dreamed of building a property portfolio so they could give up the day job for an easy life.
So ingrained had the new orthodoxy become that, in Kerrigan’s words, “the neoliberal victory was total – not just economically and politically, but culturally.” Many would lose their shirts.
Not everyone partied, of course. That was part of the “big lie”. Kerrigan artfully contrasts what JK Galbraith called “private wealth and public squalor”. At its peak, Irish gross domestic product was the second-highest in the EU, yet hundreds of patients languished on trolleys in over-crowded emergency departments. Inequality worsened as the gap between the haves and the have-nots grew ever wider.
In many countries, there would have been a public outcry. In the words of Brendan Gleeson, however, as cited by Kerrigan, Ireland re-elected Bertie Ahern and co in 2007 and “patted them on the back”.
If The Big Lie is a play in two acts, the climax of the action comes, fittingly, at the end of act one with the dramatic debacle of the blanket bank guarantee in late 2008. This was the scene of the craven capitulation of Ireland’s old politics, the fateful decision from which flowed so much of the pain to follow. The banks were to be saved, their debts made whole. Ireland’s elite circled the wagons with one overriding aim: what we have, we hold.