Campaign rhetoric and the geographies of the economic crisis
Remember when Ireland was but a straw blown about and broken by the ill winds of global collapse? When it was Lehman Brothers wot did it? As the austerity agenda becomes more deeply embedded as the touchstone of Irish political realism, any sustained analysis of what the global capitalist crisis actually meant for Ireland recedes. Patricia K Wood examines the shrinking geography of crisis and conceivable responses.
The best advice given to those who would lie is to have some small part of the lie be true. When you speak the truth, you are most believable. So if one part of what you say is true, focus on that part and put your heart into it, and you will sound most convincing. Perhaps you will succeed in your deception.
Some politicians, principally in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are employing this very selective strategy. Fine Gael will tell you that the previous drivers were negligent and even ignorant, but with Kenny and company at the wheel, the country will once again steer straight. Fianna Fáil will tell you almost the opposite: that the circumstances of the crisis were beyond the control of the government. There are aspects of these statements that are not false, but they are incomplete. There was some negligence; some parts of the crisis lie beyond the reach of the Irish government.
Another way of understanding what these parties are and are not saying is to examine their perspectives through a geographic analysis of their rhetoric. Each of the electoral strategies has its own geographic frame. What does this mean? It works like most political maps do: a map of the Republic delineates its borders and thus the extent of its sovereignty. It is not uncommon for a national election campaign to keep the focus on Ireland. The economic crisis currently smothering us, however, is bigger than that; it is a part of a worldwide recession.
More than that, there is a wider geography of the factors that led to the crisis: the neoliberal faith in reducing taxes, weakening regulations and facilitating the mobility of labour for employers. These policies blew holes in every umbrella saved for a rainy day: the results were weakened investment in infrastructure and social programs, increased risk in banking practices, and reduced resiliency for people to handle any kind of downturn. Those ideas did not originate in Ireland, nor are they unique to it. So the failure of the Irish Government to prevent the crash and to protect Irish citizens from its effects is not a case of a simple, local political failure. It’s a failure of a larger theory of global capitalism and the role of government.
Whatever geographical boundaries various parties put on their campaign rhetoric tells you a lot about not only their plan to manage Ireland’s present economic crisis, but how well they understand the crisis. How do they map the crisis and their strategy for an escape tunnel? As they discuss the crisis, how big is the space it was born in? What parts of the world lie inside - and outside - its frame?
Allow me to illustrate the various geographic framings of the crisis with a few words from the parties themselves, drawn from their published campaign materials (All statements quoted regarding party policy are taken directly from documents from that party’s official website. No effort has been made to distort their meaning or take them out of context.)
“Despite a series of significant measures taken at European level [sic] since the Greek crisis last spring to ensure the Euro’s long-term stability, a decisive solution to the euro area debt crisis has not been found. That is why governments in EU member states have been working together intensely over recent months to redesign the euro area institutions and reconfigure the European bail-out funds.”
“Ireland belongs to its people - not to the insiders who have failed them so badly.”
“We believe that the provisions of the deal forcing the next Government to continue with Fianna Fáil’s disastrous banking policy are bad for Ireland and bad for Europe.”
“Political failure lies at the heart of Ireland’s economic failure.”
“Ireland has been damaged by reckless financial policies, lax regulation and a failed political system.”
“The Green Party firmly believes that our current political system has failed the people. The depth of the crisis that the country finds itself in at the moment requires reform at all levels of public life.”
“Ireland’s banking crisis clearly demonstrates how Fianna Fáil’s philosophy of free-for-all, light-touch regulation, without proper checks and balances risks social and economic catastrophe.”
“This is the second time in a generation that Ireland had been confronted by a profound economic crisis, that is a direct result of bad governance. It is not enough to remove Fianna Fáil’s grip on government - we have to change government itself.”
“The fact is that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour are all part of a cosy consensus that has brought this state to the edge of economic ruin...[T]hey are all following the same economic strategy and it is an economic strategy that has failed dismally to date.”
“It should be noted that any type of bailout...would actually be a bailout of international banks and bondholders - not the Irish people.”
Fine Gael’s geographic frame is as small as they can make it. Not only is this Ireland’s problem, but, even more narrowly, it is a problem of “insiders”. From their perspective, the crisis is a very contained case of political mismanagement and corruption that blew up into something larger. When they move beyond Ireland’s borders, it is to speak vaguely of “best global practice” or to borrow particular ideas from other countries, rather than to understand their experience of the crisis: for example, promising to “follow Canada and Sweden by undertaking a full comprehensive spending review”. “Regulation of financial institutions” consists of “funding the planned increase in staffing levels” and striking a commission. They will “consider” measures to reduce the impact of “risky, speculative financial activities.” From regulation to taxation to labour flexibility, the Fine Gael manifesto makes it clear they intend to continue the same neoliberal economic policies that helped produce the crash.
The Green Party’s frame is even smaller. Despite acknowledging the devastation resulting from “reckless financial policies” and “lax regulation,” nowhere do they discuss how these might be addressed. To a great extent, the Greens’ manifesto avoids direct discussion of the present economic crisis and its causes, and instead creatively speculates about how politics might be redirected towards the consideration of environmental alternatives to the present economy, such as an oil-free Ireland.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fianna Fáil uses the word “crisis” sparingly (although the Greens use the word only once). The party places the emphasis on the EU as the geographic context for Ireland’s economy. Most political “reform” discussion is limited to cuts to public sector jobs or services, rather than increasing transparency, accountability or oversight. Left unelaborated, their goal to “continue the modernisation of financial regulation according to best international practice” leaves the frightening impression that the party does not or cannot distinguish between the practices that led to the crisis and those that would prevent another. It should also be noted that their references to the rest of the world are largely with respect to supporting an export economy.
Perhaps because such analysis lies closest to their perspective, it is towards the left of the spectrum that manifestos present a broader and more direct discussion of the crisis. Labour acknowledges the structural problems of neoliberal governance (although they attribute them specifically to Fianna Fáil), and identifies goals for reinstating, for example, regulation and oversight of banking practices. They also make reference to “the financial crisis at home and abroad...” Sinn Féin has the most detailed and elaborate discussion of the crisis, and the widest geographic frame. In their economic plan and their election manifesto, they reference successful strategies in other European countries facing similar deficits; they contextualize Ireland’s debt/GDP ratio in comparison to several other EU members; they propose increasing the regulation of the banks and “all those involved in the property sector”. For Sinn Féin, as for Labour, the crisis arose from both domestic and global practices.
To replace the current political managers with new managers who do not change course will only hit the reset button to play the same game again. “You hit what you head for,” as Ani DiFranco says. “Ireland 2.0” indeed: it’s another, somewhat fancier, version of the same game. It seems Fine Gael’s appeal is precisely that it will bring some change, but not very much. To many in the electorate, I imagine that feels like stability - but it is not. They will only join the list of “fiscal conservatives” who promised to cut taxes and reduce the role and size of government - conservatives such as Bush in the US and Harper in Canada, both of whom increased the debt of their countries significantly.
No economist, left or right, thinks that Ireland's economic crisis is solely the product of Fianna Fáil’s incompetence. In order to steer a new course, the geographic frame of the discussion of politics and the economy must widen to incorporate an understanding of what produced the economic crisis facing Ireland and much of the rest of the world. Such an understanding is absent from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s manifestos and campaign rhetoric.
In a previous blog entry for budgetjam, I wondered, “Will Irish citizens direct their anger at a political party or an entire political economic order?” The question still stands. The larger political and economic structure of the crash must be understood on its full, global scale, and its terms resisted. Anyone who tells you differently is telling you a lie, no matter how convincingly he speaks. And that person will drive you into the very same wall.
Patricia K Wood is Associate Professor in Geography in York University, Toronto
Image top via ToastyKen on Flickr