National crisis reduced to game of winners and losers

 

‘THE EURO may be about to explode, but that doesn’t mean you can’t profit,” declared an advertising link that caught my eye on The Irish Times website the other morning. The tone of this statement – so much at odds with the piety that normally attends these matters – begged me to click.

It turned out to be an advert for an internet publication offering to send out a daily investment e-newsletter containing “only the news you can profit from”. It promised subscribers the inside track on imminent developments in the euro crisis. The looming “inflection point” – the moment of reversal at which markets turn upside down – would provide opportunities for the initiated to “profit handsomely”. Roll up! roll up!

At one level, of course, the advert was offering only information, and who could object to that? And yet, given the current state of affairs in the euro zone, such calls to action suggest some hazy comparison with crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, which, as every journalism student learns on the first day, is beyond the protection of all reasonable free speech provisions.

For me, a strange, lurching feeling accompanied the reading of the advertising copy, which reminded me not merely that business continues in the face of disaster, but that disaster offers possibilities of lucrative business dealings. You wouldn’t expect to read such things in the comment columns or letters page, but here it was anyway, addressing the same audience: the thinking of “the markets” red in tooth and claw.

Of course we know about speculators preying on financial prospects and bearing away their “handsome” killings. But what we don’t think about so much is that, as the very existence of such adverts conveys, such people may be among us, beside us, right now, sitting at the next table in the cafe, reading The Irish Times. And such thoughts in turn provoke this odd sense that, underneath the dominant prevailing discourse, an entirely different version of reality resides – equally valid, and perhaps more relevant to obtaining a clear understanding of things.

On the front of the print edition of The Irish Times that day was a report headed “Europe plans to scrutinise Ireland long after bailout”. But what, in this context, is “Ireland”? The headline implied a common community, with shared interests: the idea that some distinct “we” are in the throes of confronting a mutualised situation. But does this “community” include also those who seek a “handsome profit” from events that plunge others into possibly lethal disaster?

For the past three years, the broad media treatment of what is called “the financial crisis” has implied that there is, at the heart of these events, a suffering community understanding itself in some way as equating to “Ireland”. Virtually all such discussion has assumed that we are all, more or less, in a shared boat – that “our” country has been grievously damaged by events and the actions of politicians, bankers etc. In all such commentary, there has been a continuous sense of a moral convocation: outrage on behalf of Ireland and her people about what has happened to “us”. But the thought seems unavoidable that, among those paying most careful attention to such discussions are people who can tell an inflection point from a hole in the ground and have benefited from such familiarity with concepts that cause other people’s brains to melt.

The euro zone speculation advert reminds us that there is not, in this context, a “we” worth talking about, that the persistence of such concepts of collective endeavour are residual fictions based on a nostalgic sense of reality. Not only is a moral convocation somewhat implausible in a country which has turned itself over to the global economy, but it no longer makes sense to speak of such an entity as a “country” at all.

In the economic sense, there is nowadays only the warring interests of players who seek to become winners in a game which just happens also to govern the real fates of real people living real lives. It is nonsensical to appeal to the patriotism and restraint of a community calling itself a nation, while also facilitating – indeed celebrating – the circumstance that this system operates by inviting gamblers to bet on the outcomes of events that hold the welfare of millions in the balance.

But this is what the word “economics” had come to mean. And it is difficult to say which aspect of the accompanying discourse is the more disconcerting: the escalating implausibility of any suggestion that economics is any longer a serious science based on real issues affecting human beings, or the shock occasioned by the candid frivolity of the stock-jobber who sees every potential catastrophe as a chance of a killing. In truth, the latter offers by far the more reliable insight.

Our media organisations – commercial entities all – are in the “business” of informing us about what is happening. But they too are caught up in the dualistic absurdity of modern economic reality – simultaneously speaking to some imagined general population which is presumed to be adversely affected by developments, while also nodding knowingly to the bloating vultures who circle ominously overhead.