Deeper malaise lurks behind our crisis


The systems we have created for conducting exchanges have ceased to function as they did, writes JOHN WATERS

IMAGINE THAT in a few years we were to look back at the crisis enveloping us now and realise that it was but a symptom of another, much deeper malaise? If so, what might be the true nature of the malaise?

We have fallen into the habit of defining the present difficulties as economic phenomena afflicting “the country”. But it should be obvious that “the country” is the same as it was before. If you drive around a bit you will notice that the topography of the landscape is largely unaffected by the arrival of the bailiffs. “Ireland” is not in crisis: its people are.

Yet, no physical calamity has befallen us. We breathe and walk and laugh as we always have. As human beings we are changed in just one tangible way: we are more afraid. Why? Because the systems we have created for conducting exchanges in the material realm have ceased to function as they did.

If your car refuses to start, you call a mechanic and expect to be back on the road within hours. But the system failure that currently confronts us is not purely mechanical. Some elements are technical, but far more critical is understanding what has happened to the “human component”: how it used to operate within the system but no longer does.

Listening to the conversations that repeat and repeat themselves on these topics, one might jump to the conclusion that what is at stake is something akin to the weather. We talk about restoring “the conditions” for recovery, improved growth etc. For each of us, individually, such an analogy may be approximately useful, in the sense that each of us depends for his economic security on factors generated in the thoughts and activities of others, rendering things outside our individual control much as the weather is. But each of us is also part of the “human component” of the system which has disintegrated precisely because of that human quotient.

The crisis that confronts us has been generated not by leaky gaskets or an occluded front, but by something out of the ordinary occurring within human responses. By “out of the ordinary” I mean in terms of what we had become accustomed to, rather than something absolute and totally unpredictable.

A market system is not powered by steam or internal combustion, but operates on human hopes and desires. We talk about deflationary trends, but really the centre of the problem resides in the human heart: in the quality of hope, desire, faith, confidence and determination that may be available to the community in crisis.

Our banking system, for example, being based on the principle of fractional reserve lending, has been operating off an illusion sustained only by the quality of human hoping – a faith-based system.

Typically, we tend to talk about the banking problem, too, in technical, legalistic or ethical terms; but if a faith-based system has ceased to function, perhaps it is because the quality of faith itself has been damaged?

Perhaps the economic system is really collapsing because human beings sought to find through it an answer for their longings that cannot be found in this way? The implication of almost all of the recriminatory discussion that has ensued since the beginning of the disintegration in mid-2008 has been the suggestion that we might have continued to pursue our desires as we had been doing – presumably to a successful conclusion – had a few bankers and politicians not torn the arse out of it.

Now, the discussion is dominated by those who tell us that, by effecting this or that ethical or mechanistic change, we can restore the system to balance, with human beings once again snug and well-adjusted at the heart of it. Thus, all discussion is predicated on the idea that, had we done things slightly differently, we could have preserved our illusions.

What passes for sanity in our present discussion, therefore, is really a kind of existential cute-hoorism that still seeks to cheat reality by insisting that human beings can create systems to cater for all their wants. A further irony is added by the fact that this very conversation, imbued as it is with fatalism and rage, is preventing any reinvigoration of the human qualities of hope and confidence without which the system cannot be rebooted.

Certain ineluctable characteristics define us: we need to eat, to sleep. Here’s another: we cannot be satisfied by anything this dimension has to offer. Time and again, we observe that, sooner or later, an apparently functioning system becomes subject to the unlimited nature of human desire, which blasts it asunder like a tornado ripping through a church fete.

We have spent nearly three years talking economics. Perhaps, before long, we might spend a short time talking about the nature of humanity and what it is we expect? What if we have become incapable of hoping because we have rumbled the tricks that enabled the maintenance of a faith-based economic system? What if something has been happening to the very desires that get us out of – and into – bed?

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