For richer, for poorer, we should create a society for all
We need a sober optimism, not a self-deluding and cult-like adherence to compulsory success stories
If we’re going to think about life after the troika, we also have to think about life before the troika. As the camera pans out from the last three years, it frames instead the last 30 years. When we consider Ireland since 1983, the picture looks stark. For all but perhaps seven of those years, the State has been in deep trouble.
The 1980s and early 1990s were characterised by mass unemployment, fiscal crisis, mass emigration and deep anguish over both sexual morality and the Troubles. The period between 2001 and 2008 was a mad bubble. Between 2008 and the present, we have been living with the consequences of the crash. This leaves a remarkably short period – the years between 1994 and 2001 – when Ireland was moving reasonably steadily towards a sustainable prosperity and a more inclusive society.
This wide-angle shot is not pretty, but it need not be depressing. Looked at in this way, the troika years are not a horrific accident. Ireland was not suddenly wrenched out of a blissful normality and plunged into a dark abyss. The loss of sovereignty may have been dramatic, but it was the culmination of deep, long-term problems. The crash stripped away layers of collective self-delusion and revealed what the boom years had temporarily obscured: that the State is built on shaky foundations.
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One reason why this does not need to be an entirely depressing insight is that there are some signs that official thinking is beginning to acknowledge the truth. In its most recent report, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) acknowledges that “Overall, the crisis has revealed that past progress was less comprehensive and less sustainable than believed: we did not adequately address non-participation and disadvantage in the boom; our relationship to the international system has been revealed as more one of vulnerability and dependence than we thought; and, our overall system of collective decision-making and public governance has been shown to be extremely weak.”
Tone of honesty
That’s not a cheery conclusion, but it does set a tone of honesty that gives much better grounds for optimism than all the cheerleading rhetoric can do.
Perhaps the place to start in thinking about what kind of society Ireland could be is to acknowledge that we do not have a positive collective vision but we do have two usefully chastening experiences. We may not agree on what’s good for us but we know two things that are bad for us. We have direct and recent experience of two contrasting kinds of failure. There was the failure of the long 1980s – a sluggish, static kind of underdevelopment. And there was the failure of the great boom – a manic, hyped-up kind of overdevelopment. From these two bad examples, it does not take much collective genius to figure out, at least in broad terms, what we do and do not need.
We need an innovative and energetic culture, but not one so consumed by greed and acquisition that it has no idea of where its own boundaries might lie. We need welfare systems that are animated by compassion and respect but not ones that lock in dependency and depression. We need an economy that generates real and sustainable wellbeing, not one that justifies every kind of social squalor with narrow (and often meaningless) GDP figures.
We need a positive and sober optimism, not a self-deluding and cult-like adherence to compulsory success stories. We need a public ethic of solidarity, equality and dignity and not either the authoritarian dogmas of the past or the cynical and ruthless individualism that replaced them.
We also need a combination of realism and hope. Realism recognises that “vulnerability and dependence” are very much still with us and will remain so until the burden of debt is radically reduced. Post-troika Ireland is still to a great extent a prisoner of international circumstance. But hope lies in a recognition that the other two long-term problems identified by NESC are within our own grasp to solve.
Those problems are about big things: equality and democracy. But they are not – and this is the good news – problems of either wealth or poverty. Ireland was unequal and tolerated social exclusion when it was relatively poor in the 1980s and when it was apparently rich in the boom years. And “public governance” was “extremely weak” when the economy was a basket case in 1987 and when it was being held up as an example to the world in 2007.
Moving towards a more decent and equal society and creating an open, participative and accountable democracy are aims that can be embraced even as we acknowledge the extreme vulnerability that is our fate. Indeed, we can go further: the only way to deal with that vulnerability is to build a collective identity underpinned both by a sense of mutual belonging to a republic of equals and by a genuine collective ownership of our democracy.
The best place to start might be at the real new beginning: childhood. Ireland in the next decade will pass a meaningful milestone: the Republic will have a million children under 14. They are not fated to come to adulthood in a badly governed State, a society that ranks them according to the accidents of their births or an economy that swings between hyper-global capitalism and crony parochialism. If Ireland is such a place, they will not stay.
The task, simply, is to make it a land fit to be inhabited by its own children.