New movement of ideas needed on post-crisis Ireland

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

In the end of year edition of the Spectator magazine, US writer Michael Lind suggests that five years after the events that triggered the financial panic and our global recession, the world continues to be in “turboparalysis”. He defines this as “a prolonged condition of furious motion without movement in any particular direction”.

Lind argues that the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression might have been expected to produce revolutions in politics and in the world of ideas. However, outside some of the Arab countries and apart from intermittent rioting caused by mass unemployment and austerity in Greece and Spain, most developed nations are remarkably sedate while political and economic debate proceeds as if “the bursting of the global economic bubble did not discredit any school of thought”.

Here in Ireland as we bed down for another new year of austerity we are indeed exhibiting many of the symptoms of turboparalysis. As an economy, a society and a political system this country is increasingly exhausted and frustrated from five years of running on the spot. 2013 has all the signs of being another year of hyperactivity but little movement in politics, economics or ideas.

Despite all the talk of political reform, our Government proposes only cautious shifts and our politics generally remains conservative and sedate. We have had a regime change but no revolution. Even since the 2011 election, although the environment is ripe for new politics, there have been no significant new political entities. There have been new marginal political groupings but they have not gained traction.

No new ideas

In the realm of political ideas the shifts have also been marginal. There have been new blogs and real world discussion forums, some well funded by domestic and international philanthropy but most with little impact. Nothing approaching a new movement of ideas has emerged.

There is now much angry contempt for the ideas that attracted overwhelming support during the boom years but most of the underlying orthodoxies behind economic and social policy for the last few decades still hold sway.

There is no emerging consensus around the radical changes needed to get us out of the current crisis and insulate us against a recurrence.

It is striking how little political debate or wider public discourse there has been about what Ireland we should strive for after this economic crisis. It’s as if getting out of the bailout has become an end in itself. Once the troika is gone it is suggested we will be masters of our own destiny again, able to do as we choose, but there is little exploration in our politics and only marginal examination in our media of what choices we should exercise when our sovereignty is restored. The political debate about austerity options has been strait-jacketed within commitments not to cut basic welfare payments or increase basic tax rates. The cuts in public expenditure have focused mainly on crudely chopping the level of spending under each heading rather than any fundamental reimagination of the role and purpose of State activity.

One of the more interesting observations was Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald’s suggestion that we re-examine our expenditure on child benefit and explore alternative ways in which the State might fund improved childcare.

At a time when demands on the welfare system are great, Fitzgerald’s suggestion has much merit but was quickly shot down by Labour Party sources. Surely we can at least discuss whether putting a payment per child directly into the pockets of all parents is the best means of tackling child poverty and improving childcare.

What we require now is new thinking and less concern for short-term political or electoral risks.

All the parties have 16 months before they begin active campaigning for the 2014 local and European elections giving space and time for existing parties, and indeed new voices to float and discuss more radical suggestions.

Some argue that we are too busy firefighting the current economic crisis to focus on planning for future reforms but it is precisely at times of crisis that some of the best new thinking should emerge.

Catalyst for change

The last great economic crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s, was ultimately resolved only by the outbreak of the second World War. This was the catalyst for dramatic economic and social transformation. Even while fighting the economic crisis and then the war, however, the victorious powers were quietly planning reforms to improve the lives of their citizens in peacetime.

Much of the new thinking that contributed to the transformation of our economy and society in the second half of the 20th century was first developed during the second World War years. In typical Irish fashion it took more than a decade for it to be implemented in the 1960s, but at least new thinking emerged.

Maybe in the bowels of Government Buildings or in conference rooms of our institutes, universities, or trade unions, some of this “post-war” planning is being done. If it is, then it needs to see the light of day soon, and breathe the oxygen of media and public debate.

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