'Let's get Ireland working!' At what?

Hilariously, if you type the phrase 'pointless work' into Flickr (and set it to return only creative commons licensed images) the first page of results consists almost solely of pictures of Enda Kenny sitting in front of his party's 'Let's Get Ireland Working' slogan. At no point have Fine Gael ever really clarified what they're going to get Ireland working at, and that, writes Nyder O'Leary, is because they have no idea what it is an economy is supposed to do. The aim of a 'functioning economy' has become an end in itself; the only end, and the only thing worth talking about. What people do in that economy, and why is seemingly irrelevant. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, our politicians brush off any such query with 'No time! No time! Let's get Ireland moving!' You might well ask where, but don't bother, because nobody is prepared to answer.

One Monday a few weeks back, The Frontline - probably RTÉ’s most successful attempt to date to produce a late-night version of Kilroy - went, momentarily, in a new direction; it featured a measured presentation of a radical idea. This came courtesy of Dr Stephen Kinsella, author of Ireland in 2050, who has the honour of being one of the less well-known - and least obnoxious - members of Ireland’s burgeoning class of economist-commentators (readers can decide for themselves whether those two facts are related). In the middle of the usual solutions to the crisis - positivity, enterprise, entrepeneurs, you know how it goes - Pat Kenny asked Kinsella about the National Spatial Strategy. There followed a discussion about the number of hubs in Ireland, as to whether the proposed seven was too many, and Kinsella expounded on a theory based on three.

Briefly, in other words, the discussion became about central planning, and how to develop the state’s means of production. For some, this sort of centralised government planning is pretty much the essence of socialism, and the only reason Kinsella wasn’t run out of the building as a communist was because people were too busy decrying the notion of there being only three hubs. The truth, though, is most of the audience were uninterested; they preferred to talk about the ingenuity of small businessmen and the need for growth.

This sort of anti-discussion is by no means limited to RTÉ studio audiences. It’s at least partly because any attempt at long-term planning in Ireland has almost always been undercut (cf. the aforementioned National Spatial Strategy) and so is difficult to take seriously. However, it’s also because the conversation is alien to the modern vernacular of what an economy is. Stephen Kinsella used the word in its classic, dictionary-definition sense: a system for harnessing, organising and managing a state’s use of its resources. Yet the accepted shorthand is to think of the economy as a self-governing entity, a temperamental and volatile force of nature that can no more be controlled than can the weather. Hearing someone speak of it as a tool was so odd that even The Frontline’s onslaught of cacophonous televisual opinion slipped momentarily to screensaver.

And yet the notion that an economy is just a system by which the state puts food in the mouths of its citizens is neither that odd nor that old. Both De Valera and Lemass ran the Irish economy as a production system - one with a dream of self-sufficiency, the other with an emphasis on trade. Both men spent many years in an economic model dependent on rationing, where the notion of the state as a provider was a very practical fact; in Britain this was even more the case, and the Welfare State was at least partially conceived to give a post-war society a work-based structure where everybody had something to do. What underscored these models was the idea that wealth was effectively constant; planning was based on getting resources to citizens, and on the needs of workers. Government encouraged or actively subsidised industries it saw as strategic - coal, North Sea oil and Mini Coopers weren’t produced because they were profitable, they were produced because they were needed, and it was the role of the state to ensure that this sort of strategically necessary industry continued.

The contrast with today is obvious; the economy isn’t something to be shaped and controlled, but a beast to be fed. A functioning economy - effective translation, ‘an economy that keeps enough people busy to remain solvent’ - is an end in itself, not a method. This preconception has so infected economic discussion that it’s barely noticed at all, but just consider the terminology: ‘get the economy moving’ (moving where, exactly?) or the standard-issue ‘economic growth’ (it doesn’t matter what it does, it just needs to grow). For all the baggy chat about the Smart Economy, the only strategic planning is itself based around how Ireland can position itself in a global market. And while this may seem academic, there’s an immediate problem it creates - without a clear purpose about what an economy is supposed to do, it’s impossible to have an informed debate about any decisions it makes, or anyone who works in it.

The posters give the game away, really. Fine Gael’s pre-election slogan of Get Ireland Working was telling, and not just because of the blatant theft from Saatchi and Saatchi’s iconic ‘79 election ad. Show that poster to someone spirited forward in time from Britain in 1950, and it would receive the same polite blankness as did Stephen Kinsella on the Frontline. At least part of the Welfare State ideology was driven by the need to get a post-war society doing something, but it went hand-in-hand with the question of what the country needed them to do. The absence of this from Fine Gael’s pitch was so commonplace that its vapidity was easily missed. Working? Well, sure. But, y’know, at what?

The answer, to any member of Generation Economy, is obvious; you work at anything that will turn a buck. In so doing you contribute to a tax base and grow the economy, and that’s all you’re supposed to do. It doesn’t matter if that work is economically counterproductive or contributes nothing of use because, simply by virtue of its existence, it is valid. The converse, of course, is equally true; anyone who doesn’t work within the private sector, regardless of the contribution they make to an economic system, is a de facto drain on the system. They are outside the ‘true’ economy, so they don’t matter. It’s only this glorious nirvana, where any private sector job is automatically ‘proper’ and any public sector job a theft of ordinary people’s taxes, that enables any public sector worker - particularly the non-frontline version, who doesn’t engage in customer service - to be portrayed as a thief of taxpayer’s money and nothing else.

This isn’t the real problem, even if the sight of public servants being criticised as non-contributing freeloaders by market researchers and communications analysts is appallingly ugly. A culture that doesn’t distinguish between the value of different types of work is one that can’t effectively ‘build an economy’ that’s self-sustaining, and finds itself constantly out of control of its own resources. Meanwhile, the belief that private-good, public-bad results in warped decisions. Only a culture that views state involvement as inherently wrong could give away its own gas fields, on the sole basis that it would require government investment to develop them; only a society that sees every private company as ‘creating jobs’, and every government employee as a waste of public money, could ever embark on the extraordinary wastefulness of PPP. Fine Gael went into the election proudly trumpeting their intention to sell off state assets like Bord Gáis and the ESB - even though those organisations currently make substantial profits, while a privatised market would undoubtedly require subsidy. In Britain, Arts funding has been cut (and the British Film Council abolished) even though studies have shown each pound of expenditure creates another seven. Meanwhile the debate about public sector pay - if indeed ‘how much can we cut it’ qualifies as a debate - has never been informed by any study of the economic value that public sector jobs provide. They are an inconvenience, and that’s it.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t an issue of public versus private. Rather, it is an issue of the worker as an economic unit. By far the most effective way of combating workers’ rights is to convince a society they do not, should not, or need not exist. A frightening amount of the discussion of the last few years has, even when defending employees’ rights, portrayed them as an inconvenient product of a social agenda, one that should never be allowed to conflict with the inevitability of the modern economy. If an economy is viewed as a resource, then the exploitation of workers - who themselves form the basis of the people the economy is supposed to serve - is a de facto sign that the system isn’t working. But if the economy is a thing, a beast that must be fed at all costs, the rights of a worker are secondary. The arbitrary addition of the ‘consumer’ to the mix - a phantom being that doesn’t actually exist, since almost all consumers are also workers by definition - just erodes the standing of the worker even further. For all the requirements to create jobs, the fundamental problem is that jobs are no longer a concern within an economic system.

The result is a culture where tax exiles submit plans straight to government, using euphemisms like flexibility and business-friendly to attack the uncomfortable entitlements of employees for reasons of pure expediency; where moral grotesques like the five-and-a-half day week can be suggested by multi-millionaires, with no greater reason given than ‘the markets demand it’.

The modern economy - controlled by no-one, answering to no-one, self-perpetuating and amoral - is not a tool, it is a capricious demigod. And when politicians speak empathically of having to ‘make sacrifices’, they don’t know how appropriate their language has become.

Image top via mason.ryan on Flickr.