A clarion call to reject the 'axis of austerity'

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

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.

Act two opens with the audacity of hope that surrounded the 2011 general election. Fresh from handing Ireland’s fiscal sovereignty to the so-called troika, Fianna Fáil was decimated. Our hopes of a new beginning were quickly dashed, however. In Kerrigan’s view, the main political imperative of the incoming Fine Gael-Labour Government was to end Ireland’s “great shame” by “waving goodbye to the IMF”, regardless of the cost to society.

Cosseted elite

Just as Kerrigan demonstrates how boom-time gains were shared unequally, so he draws a stark comparison between the cosseted postcrash existence of the financial and political elite and the plight of ordinary people bearing the brunt of cuts. In this narrative, the former are sacrificing the latter on the altar of austerity to please the financial masters of the universe.

Whether Official Ireland truly “profits from austerity” is less clear, however. Even if the pain is not shared equally, truth be told, we are all losers . . . except for the bondholders.

Kerrigan laments the increasing centralisation of economic policy and decision-making in the hands of the few. The Dáil rubber-stamps the decisions of a Cabinet increasingly dominated by its inner core, the “gang of four” that makes up the Economic Management Council – the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure. The author argues for the reform of Irish democratic structures to provide ordinary people with a protective shield against, not for, the “golden circles”.

The Big Lie aims to expose a truth. It does not purport to be a manifesto for change nor a utopian blueprint. It is a clarion call to citizens to resist the axis of austerity that is “organised and working overtime”. We should, Kerrigan insists, walk away from bank debts nationalised in our name. He argues that we should reject the entire premise of austerity and “attempt to build a less divided, more sustainable society”. If Official Ireland truly walks all over us to execute a neoliberal dogma, then it is not because we are powerless; it is because we let them. Unless people give up on the hope that the old politics offers a way out, Kerrigan argues, then “the crisis so far is a mere prelude. The future is more of the same.”

We are not left entirely without hope. As an epilogue, Kerrigan treats us to several eloquent examples of the spirit of resistance that he and others believe so necessary for the founding of a new Republic.

We are left to be inspired by the words of the Ballyhea/Charleville citizens who have marched every week since March 2011 to highlight the injustice of Ireland’s current plight; by the teacher and activist Evelyn O’Connor, who wants to spend less time fighting the system and more time teaching children; and by the poets Theo Dorgan and Anthony Cronin.

If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, then dissent from mainstream orthodoxy is the lifeblood of democratic debate. As such, The Big Lie is a valuable contribution. If, at times, Kerrigan sheds more heat than light, he more than makes up for it with a rip-roaring read sure to incite as much as to enlighten.

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